SUVA, Fiji - Fijians voted Wednesday in the South Pacific nation's first election since a 2006 coup, with the military on standby in case violence flares but police reporting no problems in early polling.
Long queues formed before doors opened at 7:30 am (1930 GMT, Tuesday) at the Vatuwaqa Public School just outside Suva city centre, where military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama cast his ballot almost eight years after seizing power.
Bainimarama, who is standing as a prime ministerial candidate, said he was confident of winning the historic poll, which for the first time extends full voting rights to Indian Fijians, who make up 40 per cent of the 900,000 population.
"We've been through a lot in the last eight years... today is very important for Fiji, this is the first time we are voting without any discrimination," he told reporters.
"Before you used to queue up to vote in different races, that is now gone. Today is about bringing democracy back to Fiji."
The vote is seen as pivotal to ending the country's "coup culture", which saw four governments toppled between 1987 and 2006, largely due to tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians.
Ahead of the vote, Fiji's President Epeli Nailatikau called for a violence-free election and military commander Mosese Tikoitoga said his forces were on standby after receiving reports of intimidation.
But there was an easy-going atmosphere in Suva, where many people dressed in their Sunday best to cast their vote and both races queued side-by-side.
"It's all going smoothly," Fiji's South African-born police commissioner Bernadus Groenewald told AFP during a brief visit to the Vatuwaqa school, where he joked with locals and shared his tips for South African-style barbecues.
Australian diplomat Andrew Goledzinowski, who heads a 92-strong multinational observer group, said it was too early to make a call on whether the election has been free and fair, with a preliminary report expected to be released Thursday.
He said monitoring polling booths across Fiji's 300-plus islands had been a logistical challenge for his team.
"In the course of that, we've been following ballot boxes in boats down rivers, we've been crossing ridges in remote areas, we've even chartered aeroplanes to take our observers up to the most remote of the islands," he said.
'I'm not going to lose'
Some 590,000 registered voters will have the chance to select from almost 250 candidates standing for election to a new 50-seat parliament set up under a constitution adopted in 2013.
Bainimarama took power vowing to stamp out corruption and end the racial divisions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians, who descend from sugar plantation labourers shipped in by the British during the colonial era.
His authoritarian regime did bring stability, but in the process tore up the constitution, sacked the judiciary and tightened media censorship, prompting Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Restrictions have been relaxed in recent years but as recently as last month Amnesty International accused Bainimarama of presiding over a "climate of fear" and raised concerns that the rules governing the election were skewed in his favour.
Quizzed on whether he would accept the result of the election, even if he loses, the 60-year-old replied: "I'm not going to lose, I will win, so you ask that question to the other parties."
When pressed, he sought to ease concerns Fiji could face yet another coup if the vote does not go his way.
"Of course we will accept the election results, that's what the democratic process is all about," he said.
Election officials say results might not be formally declared for seven days but a preliminary count may be available as early as 2:00 am Thursday (1400 GMT, Wednesday).