Observers question Fiji poll

Source: AAP – The international team monitoring Fiji’s historic election has declared the poll free but have questioned whether it was fair.

The multinational observer group, co-led by Australia, on Thursday announced Fiji’s first election in nearly a decade was “credible” and broadly representative of the will of voters.

But the group was less glowing about the electoral environment preceding the September 17 poll, particularly limitations placed on news organisations and democratic institutions.

“Civil society participation in the process was restricted,” the group stated in its preliminary report.

“The restrictive media framework, including potentially onerous penalties, limited the media’s ability to examine rigorously the claims of candidates and parties.”

Counting is still underway but the political party of Commodore Frank Bainimarama is on track to win a majority of seats in the new parliament.

The military strongman turned interim prime minister had promised a free and fair election as part of a pledge to return democracy to the Pacific nation.

This week’s election was the first time Fijians have gone to the polls since Commodore Bainimarama seized power in a military coup in 2006.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop congratulated Fijians on what was an historic day for their nation.

“Australia looks forward to working with the new Fiji government when it is formed,” she said in a statement.

The federal government invested quite a bit in the poll, including paying for six Australian election experts in the Fijian Elections Office.

It also began a diplomatic thaw with Fiji as a goodwill gesture ahead of the poll, lifting travel bans on senior military and government figures.

The observer group noted some difficulties with pre-polling and voter registration but overall didn’t register “any significant irregularities” in the counting process.

Shadow parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs Matt Thistlethwaite, who was part of the observer team, said the poll had broadly been a success but there had been problems leading up to voting day.

“There’s more to democracy than holding elections,” he told AAP from Fiji.

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