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Solomons to stage first poll since peace restored

Written by: Staff

WELLINGTON, Apr 4 (Reuters) The Solomon Islands takes a step closer to a return to democracy when the island nation holds the first national election in six years tomorrow after foreign peacekeepers restored law and order.

In 2003 the Solomons were on the verge of collapse with island gangs fighting over the capital Honiara, prompting Australia to lead a multi-national force to restore peace in the biggest military deployment in the South Pacific since World War Two.

Government corruption will be the main issue at the election called by Prime Minister Alan Kemakeza. Several ministers have been arrested on corruption charges in the past year.

Solomon Islanders also hope the poll will be gun-free, after a 2001 election was marred by armed gangs and reports of bribes, with a strong police presence at polling stations.

Thousands of stolen, homemade and old World War Two weapons have been destroyed by the South Pacific intervention force.

A spokesman for Kemakeza told Reuters yesterday that counting would start on Thursday but it would take some time for a result because of the remoteness of polling stations.

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago covering 1.35 million sq km of ocean, with the furthest electorate, Anuta Island, a 2.5 hour flight and three day boat trip away, or a seven day boat trip.

CLEAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN A campaign to ensure a clean election has seen 5,000 Solomon Islanders sign pledges to reject bribes and corruption and local media have urged voters to beware of corrupt candidates.

''Everywhere we've gone, voters have said they want to change the way things are done and find a more honest approach to electing our national leaders,'' Eric Houma, coordinator with the Clean Election Campaign, Winds of Change, said yesterday.

The country's electoral commission has introduced single ballot boxes, replacing the old individual candidate ballot boxes, to try and stamp out vote rigging.

Houma told The Solomon Star newspaper in Honiara that Clean Election campaigners would be at polling stations tomorrow to urge people to reject bribes.

''Voters must beaware of political opportunists,'' said The Solomon Star newspaper in a recent editorial.

''The decision to vote for a candidate simply because he or she gives you a bag of rice or pay for your child's school fee, will do more harm than good.'' Hand-outs of rice and cash remain an electoral tradition in the island nation of around 500,000 people as candidates compete for votes to win one of the 50 seats.

More than 340,000 people have registered to vote and 13 political parties are fielding candidates.

The Solomon Islands, a chain of 992 islands, but only 347 are inhabited, was a British protectorate which gained independence in 1978. Most people still live subsistence lives in small villages.

The battle for Guadalcanal near Honiara was the turning point in World War Two in the Pacific, when US forces started forcing back Japanese troops.

Reuters DKS BD0951

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