Polls are open in Papua New Guinea. The prime minister has urged peaceful polling - and asked voters to give him another term to fix an economy under siege.
Papua New Guineans went to the polls Saturday to cast early ballots in an election that runs through July 8. Official results will not likely become public before much later in the month.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, who took office with his People's National Congress after the 2012 elections, campaigned on delivering key infrastructure and providing public education and health care. O'Neill said his government had brought more stability to a sprawling country where violence has greeted previous elections.
"Let's show the international community that PNG has come of age and will express its democratic principles in a manner acceptable to the community," O'Neill said before voters began choosing from more than 3,300 candidates representing over 40 political parties to fill the parliament's 111 seats.
The right-wing Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party has emerged as the main opponent of the People's National Congress. The opposition accuses Prime Minister O'Neill of mismanaging an economy long at the mercy of the market for global commodities. A series of protests had sought to topple his government last year.
'Most difficult terrain'
The country does not conduct opinion polling, so no candidate or party went into the elections with a clear media advantage. No party has ever won a majority in Papua New Guinea, meaning that voters will likely force leaders to cobble together a coalition held together by strategic political appointments.
Australia, Papua New Guinea's biggest neighbor and largest foreign funder, has worked with the government to ensure smooth polling and sent election officials to train 30,000 local staff, as well as military helicopters and planes to help transport election materials to remote or mountainous areas. Hundreds of observers from Australia and elsewhere have also traveled to the country to monitor the polls and watch for any vote-buying as candidates jockey for positions in government.
"Our assistance also includes voter awareness initiatives, support for female candidates and election-related training for journalists," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said. One hundred and sixty-five women are seeking office this year.
"This assistance will help to strengthen electoral processes and deliver polling operations in a country with some of the world's most difficult terrain," Bishop said. "Australia's election observation and support demonstrates our close and enduring relationship with Papua New Guinea. As our nearest neighbor, Australia has a shared interest in PNG's security and economic development."
Just under 4.8 million of Papua New Guinea's about 7 million people were eligible to vote in 2012. Nearly 77 percent turned out.
mkg/jlw (AFP, EFE)