SUVA, Fiji (AP) — International observers endorsed the landmark Fiji election as credible on Thursday, although most smaller political parties said they would not accept what appeared to be a decisive win for the South Pacific country's military ruler.
The Multinational Observer Group said the result of Wednesday's election, while still being finalized, would broadly reflect the will of voters. The endorsement paves the way for international sanctions to be dropped, including Fiji's likely return this month to full status among the Commonwealth group of nations.
Five of the seven registered political parties that contested the election called on authorities to suspend the vote count until their complaints were investigated, but Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem said Thursday he had rejected their request.
The election was the first since Voreqe Bainimarama seized control in a 2006 coup and his Fiji First party appeared victorious. With votes from three-fifths of polling stations counted, Fiji First was winning 60 percent of the vote, while its closest rival, the Sodelpa party, was trailing with 27 percent.
The leaders from Sodelpa and four other parties told journalists they were concerned that multiple ballot boxes had been tampered with. They said some boxes had been removed without the ballots being counted while others had been stuffed with envelopes.
The international observers saw no evidence of misconduct or intimidation, according to their preliminary findings. The monitoring group of about 100 people was co-led by delegations from Australia, India and Indonesia.
The election was "enthusiastically embraced by the voters of Fiji who were keen to participate in the democratic process," the group said in a preliminary statement. "The election was conducted in an atmosphere of calm, with an absence of electoral misconduct or evident intimidation."
The group noted some shortcomings, including a complex voting system and a short timeframe for the election, resulting in some problems with voter registration and early voting.
It said that while Fijian journalists had made good efforts to cover the buildup to the election, a restrictive media framework, including onerous penalties, limited their ability to "examine rigorously the claims of candidates and parties."
The group's overall endorsement was welcomed by Australia and New Zealand.
"This was a historic day for the people of Fiji," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.