September 21, 2014 / 4:44 AM / 3 years ago

Fiji coup leader Bainimarama claims election victory

PERTH Australia (Reuters) - Voreqe Bainimarama, the former naval officer who has twice seized power in Fiji via military coups, on Sunday claimed victory in the Pacific island nation’s first election following eight years of military rule.

An election poster for Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama can be seen in the rear window of a taxi as a man gestures from the doorway of a local gymnasium in the Fiji capital of Suva August 26, 2014. REUTERS/Lincoln Feast

The 60-year-old strongman ruler, known as “Frank” Bainimarama, has been prime minister of Fiji, a nation of 300 islands with a population of about 900,000, since 2007.

The poll conducted on Wednesday was broadly praised by a 92-member international observer group, despite opposition accusations of fraud. On Sunday, with 90 percent of the vote counted, Bainimarama delivered a victory speech in which he thanked the military forces for standing by him since 2000.

“I am greatly honored and humbled that the Fijian people put their trust in me to lead them into our new and true democracy,” Bainimarama said in the speech aired by Fiji Broadcasting Corp (FBC).

“My absolute promise (is) that we will govern for the well being of all Fijians.”

Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party appeared set to win a majority of the parliament’s 50 seats after securing 59 percent of the vote, according to the Fijian Elections Office. The Social Democratic Party was a distant second with 28 percent of the vote.

Bainimarama seized on a long-simmering rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and minority ethnic Indians, the economically powerful descendants of laborers 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 was brought in to head the interim military government installed after a counter-coup.

Keen to move on from the sour relations that followed the coup, regional powerhouse Australia said on Friday that it looked forward to working with the new government after provisional results put Bainimarama’s party in the lead.

Reporting by Morag MacKinnon; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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