Former prime minister and coup leader win seats in Fijian election

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A former Fijian prime minister and the coup leader who drove him from office at gunpoint were both elected to Parliament, election officials said Wednesday, in a vote aimed at restoring democracy to this troubled South Pacific nation.

Mahendra Chaudhry, who was Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, won his district in the Indian stronghold in the west, election officials said.

George Speight also won a seat in the legislature, 16 months after he and a gang of gunmen stormed the debating chamber to overthrow the Pacific nation's democratically elected government.

Speight narrowly won the Tailevu North Fijian communal seat for the Conservative Alliance, a nationalist party demanding that indigenous Fijians control political power in their homeland.

Speight supporters gathered at a school in Fiji's capital, Suva, danced and cheered when they heard the result.

Speight remains in custody on an island off Suva awaiting trial on treason charges for leading the coup. He faces a maximum death penalty if convicted. He was allowed to run for a parliamentary seat because he has not been convicted of a crime.

"All the hard work has paid off today and words cannot express what this day means to the cause (of indigenous Fijians) that was fought for last year," Speight's brother Sam said.

"It wasn't easy. As you know our candidate has not been able to campaign, so that was a big hurdle to overcome," he added.

Chaudhry's main rival for power, military–installed interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, also won his seat, officials added.

Qarase, an indigenous Fijian, immediately ruled out working with Chaudhry.

"I'm not prepared to work with Chaudhry. Either he forms the government, or I form the government," said Qarase, leader of the SDL party.

Chaudhry's Labor Party took 22 of the 45 seats announced by late afternoon Wednesday, and the two main indigenous Fijian parties shared 20 seats. Others were held by minor parties. Twenty–six seats are still being contested in the 71–seat Parliament.

Meanwhile, leaders of indigenous Fijian political parties resumed talks Wednesday on forming a coalition government to try to prevent the Pacific nation's ethnic Indian minority from taking power following the general election.

To hold power, a party or coalition must take 37 seats, which gives it the right to appoint the next prime minister and form the new government. A majority of 36 seats is not enough because the Parliamentary speaker is taken from the ranks of the largest party and cannot vote.

SDL organizer Jale Baba said he is confident the Fijian parties will reach agreement to form a coalition to take power by Saturday.

Baba said only a coalition deal will ensure Fijian parties will form a government rather than their common political foe, Labor's Chaudhry.

"Chaudhry is the biggest threat to stability in this country," Baba said.

He said the alternative to a coalition agreement was "the political wilderness" of opposition.

The Conservative Alliance's demand that the coup plotters awaiting trial for treason should be pardoned, already rejected by the SDL leadership, has still to be discussed, Baba said.

Amid tight security, electoral officials Wednesday continued counting hundreds of thousands of votes cast in the national poll, which took place last week across Fiji's 100 inhabited islands.

Fijians and Indians vote in racially separate electorates under the country's 1997 constitution. Ethnic Indians make up 44 percent of the 820,000 population; indigenous Fijians make up 51 percent.

The complicated preference–sharing voting system had slowed down the count, electoral officials said. A final result was still expected sometime midweek.