Voting began in Papua New Guinea today in polls seen as a watershed moment after months of political uncertainty in the struggling Pacific nation which is on the brink of a huge resources boom.
PNG’s electoral commission said voting started between 8:00 am and 9:00 am (2200 2300 GMT Friday) in a number of provinces across the rugged nation with the full count expected to take two weeks.
Commission spokesman Alphonse Muapi said the lead-up to the election had been mostly peaceful and the morning’s voting had started without a hitch.
Electoral commissioner Andrew Trawen was yet to receive the first detailed updates from the ground but said all systems are set to go.
These elections are very important and we’ve needed to get under way very quickly, Trawen told AFP.
Security forces are out in strength across the nation,particularly in the volatile highlands where a number of pre-polling raids and arrests were made and which was the scene of violence in 2002 polls.
There are 4.6 million people registered to vote and 3,428 candidates are vying for just 109 parliamentary seats,with no single political party likely to win enough seats to form government on its own.
There are 4,700 polling stations – 1,700 of which are so remote they are only accessible by air.
The commission has described the vote as the most crucial in PNG’s 37 years since independence,with the country poised for a huge USD 15 million liquefied natural gas project set to transform its impoverished economy.
Corruption and bribery are common in the aid-dependentMelanesian nation of 6.8 million people,with diplomatsdescribing PNG as a dysfunctional blob and steeped intraditional magic in memos published by WikiLeaks last year.
A backgrounder prepared by US officials ahead of the lastelections likened the country’s politics to Ponzi fraudschemes and described its citizens as rubes,or country bumpkins,whose votes were easily bought.
Election observers said vote-buying was even worse thistime around,with bribes on offer increasing as much as30-fold in some areas as contenders jostled for a position in the front seat of the resources boom.
Our team in Enga has reported that certainly one of the sitting members (of parliament) has been handing out debit cards with 3000 kina (USD 1,445) in the account, said Nicole Hayley,head of the Domestic Election Observers group. Clearly this election is much more competitive and people are crediting that to the liquefied natural gas project. The stakes are much higher, said Hayley,from the Australian National University.