Voting began in Papua New Guinea yesterday 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.
The electoral commission said voting started between 8am and 9am in a number of provinces across the rugged nation of 6.8 million people 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 had 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 said.
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.
Police commissioner Toami Kulunga called for voting in the restive region to be extended by another day after delays in the arrival of ballot boxes and officials.
“All eligible voters have the right to cast their votes and responsible government agencies must ensure this happens,” Kulunga said.
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.
Of the 4,700 polling stations, 1,700 are so remote they are only accessible by air.
The commission has described the vote as the most crucial in the country’s 37 years since independence, with the country poised for a huge US$15 million liquefied natural gas project set to transform its impoverished economy.
Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles expressed hope that the election would offer a “reset” button on “what has been a very difficult 12 months” for the country.
“I think we can all have a sense of hope and optimism that these elections will herald in a new period of politics in PNG,” Marles told ABC Radio.
Corruption and bribery are common in the aid-dependent Melanesian nation, described as a “dysfunctional blob” and “steeped in traditional magic” by diplomats in memos published by WikiLeaks last year.
A backgrounder prepared by US officials ahead of the last elections likened the country’s politics to Ponzi fraud schemes and described its citizens as “rubes,” or country bumpkins, whose votes were easily bought.
Election observers said vote-buying was even worse this time around, with bribes on offer increasing as much as 30-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 3,000 kina [US$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.
Due for completion in 2014, the US$15 billion ExxonMobil gas project stands to end Papua New Guinea’s reliance on foreign aid, potentially doubling its GDP.