Voting began in Papua New Guinea on Saturday in polls seen as a watershed moment after months of political uncertainty in the struggling Pacific nation on the brink of a huge resources boom.
PNG’s electoral commission said voting started between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. 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 US$15 million liquefied natural gas project set to transform its impoverished economy.
It is also hoping to put behind it months of political turmoil triggered by a December court ruling that veteran leader Sir Michael Somare had been wrongly ousted by parliament while ill in Singapore last year.
Somare and his successor, Peter O’Neill, have been locked in a power struggle ever since in a crisis which, at its height, saw the nation with two prime ministers, two governors-general and two police chiefs.