SUVA, FIJI (AFP) - Former Fiji military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama survived declining support for his FijiFirst party to remain in power on Sunday (Nov 18), fending off a strong challenge from rival coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka.
The Fiji election result, confirmed four days after the island nation went to the polls for only the second time since "Frank" Bainimarama seized power in 2006, gave FijiFirst a three-seat majority in parliament.
Bainimarama was not in Fiji to hear the final result but told Fiji Broadcasting Corporation from New Zealand, where he has been attending his brother's funeral, that he was "proud to become your prime minister once again".
FijiFirst took 50.02 per cent of the vote, enough to claim 27 seats, while Rabuka's SODELPA party with 39.85 per cent and the National Federation Party with 7.38 per cent got 24 seats between them in the 51-seat parliament.
Support for FijiFirst had dived from 59.17 per cent in 2014 when Bainimarama first went to the polls following eight years of political reforms after he overthrew the previous government of then prime minister Laisenia Qarase.
Rabuka, who led two military coups in 1987 before later being democratically elected prime minister, saw SODELPA's share of the vote rise from 21.18 per cent four years ago.
In a preliminary report, a multinational observer group said it was "confident that Fijian voters were able to exercise their right to vote freely".
The report was prepared Friday before a small number to voters were allowed to cast a late ballot after torrential rain forced the closure of some polling stations on Wednesday.
It assessed the electoral processes as "transparent and credible" and that the election "was on track to reflect the will of the voters".
Bainimarama, 64, led a bloodless coup 12 years ago vowing to end the instability that saw four governments toppled between 1987 and 2006.
For eight years he led a military regime that ruled by decree as he reshaped the political landscape.
Under his watch, the island nation of 920,000 has enjoyed sustained growth in its tourism-reliant economy.
Supporters say he has helped heal racial divisions by introducing equal rights for Indian-Fijians, a sizeable minority brought in to work on sugar plantations during British colonial rule.
He has also made Fiji's foreign policy less reliant on Australia and New Zealand, which both tried to isolate his regime when he seized power, allowing China an increased role in aid and development.
But critics, including Amnesty International, say some democratic fundamentals such as media freedom and the right to assembly remain inadequate under Bainimarama, who is notoriously sensitive to criticism.
Fiji is by far the most populous and economically powerful of the South Pacific island nations and seen as a regional hub for business and diplomacy.