SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Fiji's military ruler for the past eight years appeared to be headed to a decisive victory Thursday to become the South Pacific nation's elected leader.
With votes from three-fifths of polling stations counted, Voreqe Bainimarama's Fiji First party was winning 60 percent of the vote, while its closest rival, the Sodelpa party, was trailing with 27 percent. The margin will ensure Fiji First will be able to rule outright in the Parliament under the country's proportional system.
A day earlier, there was excitement among thousands of voters and relief from the international community as Fijians cast ballots in the landmark election they hope will end more than a quarter-century of political turmoil.
Bainimarama, who has ruled this sunny South Pacific nation since he seized control in a 2006 coup, is popular in Fiji thanks in part to his focus on social programs, increased infrastructure spending and careful cultivation of his image through media controls.
After casting his ballot, Bainimarama was asked whether he would accept the outcome if he lost.
"I'm not going to lose. I will win. You ask that question to the other party," he said. Then he added, "Of course we will accept the election results. That is what the democratic process is all about."
The 100 or so international election observers did not report any immediate problems by the time voting closed. They have scheduled a news briefing for later Thursday. A little more than half a million of the nation's 900,000 citizens registered to vote.
The international community is prepared to drop remaining sanctions once Fiji officially restores democracy, including returning it to full membership among the Commonwealth group of nations.
Moti Ram, 73, arrived at a Suva polling station Wednesday with his whole family. "We wanted our votes to count," he said.
Abele Tubaba, from the village of Koronatoga, said he hoped whoever wins will improve development in remote areas.
"We struggle to find markets for our root crops, grog and seafood," he said, referring to a potent traditional Fijian drink. "We hope the new government brings better things for us."
Supporters say Bainimarama's popularity reflects a job well done, while detractors say he's seeking to legitimize his treasonous power grab and years of human rights abuses.
Ro Teimumu Kepa, leader of Sodelpa, said after voting that she and her candidates have done the best job they could: "We leave it to the people to decide."
Bainimarama won favor with many Fijians by improving services. He's made education free and spent tens of millions of dollars improving the roads, albeit much of it with money borrowed from China. And the economy is showing signs of life, growing by 4.6 percent last year, according to government figures.
Some see his biggest achievement as reducing ethnic tensions, which have been a big factor in the four coups Fiji has endured since 1987.
An indigenous Fijian, Bainimarama is paradoxically most popular with the large minority whose ancestors come from India. That's because he's ended preferential indigenous representation in the Parliament and abolished the Great Council of Chiefs, a group of powerful indigenous Fijians who enjoyed a privileged status in island life.
Human rights groups say Bainimarama has tortured prisoners and repressed opponents. They say he's carefully cultivated his own image by at first censoring and then controlling the nation's media, and has looked after his own interests by meddling with the constitution, ensuring he and other coup leaders are immune from prosecution.
"We believe in democracy. They came in through treason. That's a major difference between us," said Kepa, herself a highly ranked indigenous chief. "They're telling the population they believe that all the citizenry are equal, yet they're giving themselves immunity. Where's the equality in that?"
Brij Lal, a professor at the Australian National University, said the international community is so eager to reward Fiji for holding the election that it's willing to overlook how Bainimarama gained power and held on to it.
"They all realize the process will be flawed," he said. "But as long as Fiji goes through the motions reasonably OK, then that's fine."
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.