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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, May 7) – It was a chaotic start to the 2006 general election in Fiji yesterday as voters and politicians vented their anger and frustration on the Elections Office, forcing it to apologize to the nation for the delays.

In 32 polling stations in Suva and Lautoka, polling was delayed by as much as six hours because there were no ballot papers and when the papers finally arrived, not all were there, causing even further delays.

All polling stations were scheduled to open at 7 a.m. on Saturday. By 6 a.m., people had started queuing in the hope of escaping the rush during the day. At Kalabu Fijian School and Colo-i-Suva polling stations, voters had to wait until 1p.m. before they could cast their votes. A spokesman at Colo-i-Suva said ballot papers had arrived late.

At the International Primary School polling station in Laucala Beach Estate, voting did not start until 9 a.m.. At the TPAF polling station in Narere, voting began at 11:30 a.m., much to the frustration and anger of voters. At the Draiba polling station, voters who turned up at 6 a.m. were told to return at 11 a.m. when ballot papers would be available. At the Suva Civic Centre, voting began two hours late.

At Lomaiviti, the islanders of Gau had to wait for the vessel Raiyawa which was carrying ballot papers to arrive before they could vote. The vessel arrived at 5 a.m. and voting started at 10 a.m., two hours late.

In Lautoka, polling started about three hours later. The station at Drasa Indian School opened its doors to voters at 9:30 a.m. while voting at Vaivai Indian School started at 11:45 a.m.

When officials at Vaivai Indian finally got their ballot papers, it was the wrong constituency. Instead of ballot papers for the Vuda Indian Communal constituency, they received papers for the Lautoka City Indian Communal constituency.

Sher Mohammed, an 80-year-old farmer who had been waiting at Vaivai Indian since 7:30 a.m., described it as the worst election ever conducted in Fiji. He said even the electoral officials were late.

Ramend Balessar of Wairabetia said the delay was suspicious and had cast a cloud over the whole election process.

Military commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who queued outside Suva Civic Centre, didn't mind the wait, saying it was "fine."

At densely populated areas of Raiwaqa and Vatuwaqa, polling was delayed by about three hours.

Independent candidate Ofa Swann said she arrived at Draiba polling station at 6:30 a.m. but was told there were no ballot papers for the General, Rotuman and Indian communal constituencies. At a press briefing yesterday afternoon, Deputy Supervisor of Elections Semi Matalau apologized to the nation for the delays. He assured voters that things would improve from tomorrow, the second day of voting.

"It was purely a logistical problem which was rectified in due time before 10 a.m., however probably because of transportation times, it took longer than that to reach some polling stations," he said.

He said the printing of ballot papers was completed at 11 a.m. on Friday but because they had to be proof-read before distribution, they were late leaving the printery.

Western Division returning officer Savenaca Kaunisela said while they had no control over the delay, election officials were very effective in dealing with the problem.

He said ballot papers arrived from Suva on Friday at about 5.30 p.m. and his officers did their best to distribute the ballot papers on time.

"The last batch of ballot papers arrived in Lautoka early [on Saturday] and our officers are currently checking all ballot papers to see that the right ballot papers are sent to respective polling stations," said Mr. Kaunisela.

Central Division re-turning officer Inoke Devo said his area was the last to receive ballot papers from the Government Printer and only the Suva polling stations were affected.

He said these were teething problems but they would work to ensure that it did not happen again.

Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry said he was disgusted with the Elections Office, adding that it was incompetent.

"I hold the Electoral Commission and the Supervisor of Elections fully answerable for this utter disarray to the start of the 2006 general elections," he said. "They cannot create a mess and not be held accountable."

Caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said despite the hiccups, the general election would be a fair and transparent one.

"Given the training provided by the Elections Office to the polling officials, all will be well for this election," he said, after casting his vote at the Suva Civic Centre yesterday.

"It will be a fair and good election and it is good to see how the voters have turned up in numbers. I have just visited other polling stations around the central division and everything has flowed smoothly and going on very well," he added.

Constitutional lawyer Jon Apted said the delays yesterday were not enough grounds for any losing candidate or party to use to challenge the results of the elections.

He said since it happened on the first day of voting, the problem could be rectified later on in the week.

Labor hopeful Vyas Deo Sharma said delays were a huge cost to candidates and parties.

May 8, 2006

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