Updated: 03/05/2014 03:30 | By Agence France-Presse

Fiji coup leader to swap gun barrel for ballot box

Fiji strongman Voreqe Bainimarama is set to resign as military chief of the coup-plagued South Pacific nation on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to contest long-awaited general elections in September.


Fiji coup leader to swap gun barrel for ballot box

Fiji's military leader Voreqe Bainimarama speaks at a press conference in Suva on December 7, 2006 - by William West

Bainimarama, who used the army to seize power in 2006, will officially end a military career spanning almost four decades as he bids to win over voters in a country that struggles with poverty and deep racial divisions.

After years of simply silencing opponents by issuing decrees that limit freedom of speech and assembly, the 59-year-old said he was excited at the prospect of waging "a battle of ideas" for Fiji's future.

"Everything my government and I have worked for over the past seven years is coming to a climax with the general election," he told a function in the capital Suva last month.

"When the new parliament is chosen... our revolution will be largely complete. But our task of building a new and better Fiji will be only just beginning."

Bainimarama's bloodless coup in 2006 -- the fourth in Fiji since 1987 -- took place against a volatile backdrop stemming from tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians descended from sugar plantation labourers shipped in by the British during the colonial era.

He took power vowing to root out corruption and introduce a one-person, one-vote system that would end racial inequalities in the nation of almost 900,000.

His authoritarian regime did bring stability, but in the process tore up the constitution, sacked the judiciary and tightened media censorship.

When he reneged on a pledge to hold elections in 2009, major allies Australia and New Zealand led a push to isolate Fiji diplomatically, resulting in suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

-- 'Time to restore ties' --

Victory in an election accepted as free and fair would give Bainimarama's government an international acceptance that has so far eluded it.

Australia, the country's largest donor, is already looking at lifting sanctions and restoring defence ties after a PIF group recently visited the island nation and hailed "significant progress" towards restoring democracy.

"We believe it is time to rebuild political ties, including reviewing travel sanctions," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told parliament in Canberra last week.

Despite her enthusiasm, Bishop said restoring democracy in Fiji remained challenging, citing the need for a free press and international observers to ensure the election is conducted properly.

In addition, Bainimarama has made it clear the military will still play "a vital role in law and order", even though it has been involved in all of Fiji's coups.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, a Pacific specialist at Sydney-based think-tank The Lowy Institute, said Australia had to be realistic and accept that thawing relations would not transform Bainimarama into a civil libertarian overnight.

"It is unlikely to induce Bainimarama to change his personality, keep the military out of politics, ease up on restrictions on the media and unions, and support enhanced human rights, at least in the short term," she said.

-- 'Half a democracy'? --

At home, observers say Bainimarama appears in a strong position to win the election. An opinion poll in the pro-government Fiji Sun this week put his support as preferred prime minister at 79 percent.

Citizens' Constitutional Forum president Akuila Yabaki said Bainimarama had the advantage of incumbency and had increased spending on roads, schools and bridges to shore up support.

"It's evident from listening to the chiefs of the provinces and the people in the rural areas that they will support the military government," he said. 

"Some do not even want an election because they strongly feel that Bainimarama is doing a good job and should continue."

Yabaki also said Bainimarama appeared to enjoy support from the Indian community even though his background is Fijian, saying: "Indians feel more secure under this government."

Opposition figures such as Fiji Trades Union Congress national secretary Felix Anthony accuse Bainimarama of stacking the electoral system in his favour and using the courts to silence critics.

Anthony, who has been detained several times over his activities, said the international community should not move too swiftly to rehabilitate Bainimarama.

"Improving relations is positive, however... Australia needs to be a bit cautious and not settle on our behalf for half a democracy in this country," he told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation.

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