Fiji PM sparks anger over funding bias

SUVA, Fiji - Opposition figures in Fiji's fledgling democracy accused Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama of "political blackmail" Tuesday after he said his party's supporters would receive government funding ahead of those who vote for his rivals.

Bainimarama, who led a military regime that ruled the Pacific country for eight years before securing a landslide election victory last month, said on a visit to the northern island of Vanua Levu over the weekend that those who voted for his Fiji First party would be rewarded.

He said areas where Fiji First polled well would receive funding for development projects before those that backed opposition parties such as Sodelpa, the Fiji Sun newspaper reported.

"It's only fair that we look after our supporters first, as without them we wouldn't be running the government," he said, adding: "No one will be left out but the priority will be for our supporters."

Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry said the remarks amounted to political blackmail and conflicted with Bainimarama's pledge during his victory speech after the election that he would rule for all Fijians, regardless of their ethnic background, beliefs, or who they voted for.

"This sort of statement is of serious concern to me because it is conflicting with his own idea of equal citizenry - what is his saying? I really hope he is not too serious about it." Chaudhry told AFP.

Chaudhry said the government had a duty to serve all the people and not to discriminate in favour of its own supporters.

Sodelpa MP Naiqama Lalabalavu said foreign governments that donated funds for development projects in Fiji should take note of Bainimarama's remarks and tread cautiously when establishing relations with his government.

"The opposition will be following up in parliament on this extraordinary threat from the prime minister," Lalabalavu told the Fiji Times.

Bainimarama stepped down as Fiji's military leader in order to contest the election but rights group Amnesty International said before the vote that he still presided over a "climate of fear" in the Pacific nation.