SYDNEY - Voting began in Papua New Guinea Saturday 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 of 6.8 million with the full vote 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 were 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.
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.
Australia’s 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.