Fiji parties say election count should stop after glitch

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Sitiveni Rabuka, the main challenger in Fiji's general election, speaks to media during a press conference in Suva, Fiji, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Rabuka and other other political parties called for an immediate halt to vote-counting after there was a glitch in the online results app followed by a big swing in favor of his opponent. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

WELLINGTON – The leaders of four political parties contesting Fiji's general election called for an immediate halt to vote-counting Thursday after the online results app experienced a glitch and then the next batch of results swung in favor of the incumbent prime minister.

The latest events threaten the Pacific nation's delicate democracy, which has been marred by four military coups in the past 35 years. This election has pitted two former coup leaders against each other.

Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the first coup back in 1987, has emerged as the main challenger to Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who has held power for the past 16 years.

After polls closed Wednesday night, Rabuka's People’s Alliance Party was leading in preliminary results.

At around midnight, election officials announced they had found an anomaly in the app system used by the public to follow the election. When the next batch of results was posted on the app, Bainimarama's Fiji First party was solidly in the lead.

Rabuka said he didn't have faith in the vote count after the glitch, and that results from party observers at polling stations didn't match those provided by election officials.

“We now call for an immediate halt in the tallying of votes until an urgent forensic audit of the election system is conducted," Rabuka told reporters at a press conference, where he was joined by three leaders of minor parties.

He said the the glitch had “called into serious question the integrity of the whole entire system.”

At an earlier press conference, Election Supervisor Mohammad Saneem had said they'd found an anomaly which had affected the app.

“We had to delete the data that had been published, and then we had to then re-upload the data on the app,” Saneem said.

Full results aren't expected for several days.

Fiji is known abroad as a tourist paradise that is dotted with pristine beaches and filled with friendly, relaxed people.

However, the past few years have proved tough for many people in the nation of just under 1 million, after tourism evaporated when COVID-19 hit and the economy tanked.

The World Bank estimates the nation’s poverty rate is about 24%.

Bainimarama first seized the top job by force in 2006 and later refashioned himself as a democratic leader by introducing a new constitution and winning elections in 2014 and again — but by a reduced margin — in 2018.

After leading back-to-back coups in 1987, Rabuka was later elected prime minister in the 1990s, serving seven years in the role.

Before this year's election, Fijian authorities enlisted an extra 1,500 police to ensure voting went smoothly.

Immediately after polls closed, Rabuka had said he liked his chances, and was “feeling great and getting better.”

But he'd cautioned that Bainimarama might not accept a losing result, and might try to seek recourse through a court dispute process.

Bainimarama appeared to be in no mood to answer questions from reporters on Wednesday after questioning the intelligence of one reporter before brushing aside other questions.