SUVA (Reuters) - Voters in Fiji headed to the polls on Wednesday for the first time in eight years, following a decision by the South Pacific island nation's military junta that the time was right for a transition back to democratic rule.
Fiji, a tropical idyll about 3,200 km (2,000 miles) east of Australia, has suffered four coups since 1987, the latest in 2006 led by former army chief Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, whose Fiji First Party had a strong lead heading into the general election.
Voters thronged to the polls, appearing ecstatic about once again choosing their leaders despite the spectre of security threats raised by the military and criticism of Bainimarama for using state media to drown out other parties.
"I have waited for eight years to be part of this historic day. Everyone voting as ... members of this place we call home," Ramesh Chand told Reuters after casting his vote for Fiji First.
Bainimarama seized on a long-simmering rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and minority ethnic Indians, the economically powerful descendants of labourers brought by the British to work sugarcane fields, to justify his coup in 2006.
In 2000, ethnic Fijians held the first Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage in Parliament for 56 days, in a coup that began with deadly riots in the streets of the capital, Suva.
Bainimarama quickly abolished traditional, rival power bases such as the ethnic Fijian Great Council of Chiefs and old electoral boundaries that roughly grouped people according to their ethnicity, to the advantage of majority ethnic Fijians.
He also pushed steadily for equal rights, culminating in a 2013 constitution, helping him to consolidate his popularity among Indo-Fijians.
While new laws mean equality has improved on the surface, some have argued that the animosity continues to fester under the surface.
Military chief Mosese Tikoitoga seemed to be warning against any repeat of that sort of violence, while at the same time implying that the majority ethnic-Fijian military retained the right to intervene in politics.
"The very same people who didn't want the military to provide the security ... are now creating an atmosphere of intimidation against the people or parties that want to cast their vote in a free and fair environment," he told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation.
Seven political parties and two independent candidates are standing for representation in the 50-seat Parliament. Under the constitution, a government must be formed within 17 days of the election, leaving open the possibility of a coalition of several minor parties.
Nearly 20 percent of the population are voting for the first time because Fiji, a chain of 300 islands with about 900,000 people, has not held an election in almost a decade. That alone lent polling stations a festive air.
At several stations, voters began queuing before dawn, expecting long waits, only to sail through in what appeared to be a well-managed system that left many polling sites empty by mid-morning.
"Honestly, I was expecting the long lines and long hours of voting like in the past," Serupepeli Tulai, 62, told Reuters at a polling station in Suva, after casting a ballot for Bainimarama's Fiji First.
"The weather has been great and the main thing for me is it has been peaceful."
Preliminary results should begin trickling in late on Wednesday, after polls close.
Writing by Matt Siegel in SYDNEY; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait