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Solomons voters arrive by canoe and on foot to vote

Written by: Staff

HONIARA, Apr 5 (Reuters) Solomon Islands voters arrived by boat, motorised canoe, trucks and on foot to cast ballots today in the first national poll since foreign troops restored peace in the South Pacific nation three years ago.

There were no reports of violence or intimidation at polling stations after the last election in 2001 was marred by armed gangs and reports of bribery and vote rigging, said the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corp (SIBC) radio.

The Solomons was on the verge of collapse in 2003 with armed 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.

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

''Police reports from around the country say voting has been peaceful,'' said Walter Nalangu, a reporter with SIBC in Honiara.

''The mood today is that people are very free at the polling stations. Voters are eager to cast their votes,'' Nalangu told Reuters. ''They want new people to come in and be accountable for what they do in parliament.'' Government corruption has been the main issue at the election called by Prime Minister Alan Kemakeza. Several ministers have been arrested on corruption charges in the past year.

No clear favourites have emerged in the run-up to the poll.

Solomons political analyst Sam Alasia says no one party will dominate, leading to ''horsetrading'' by successful candidates to negotiate a coalition government, which may take weeks.

A public holiday was declared in the Solomons to encourage voter turnout, with reports of a steady stream of voters throughout the day.

Government spokesman Johnson Honimae said voting was slower in the capital Honiara as many candidates had returned to their villages to vote.

''It's not surprising as many people would rather vote in their village constituencies. Many candidates have bought or hired boats to take voters back to their villages to vote,'' Honimae said.

The SIBC said that voters at some polling stations had complained their names were missing from election rolls.

Observers from a volunteer group called Clean Election Campaign, Winds of Change urged voters arriving at polling stations in schools and community halls to cast an honest vote.

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

As voters entered polling stations they marked their ballot papers with a cross or tick next to a candidate's name and party, which were represented by a symbol, such as a war canoe, coconut tree, axe or soccer ball.

A total of 453 candidates from 13 parties are contesting 50 seats in the unicameral parliament.

Counting will start tomorrow but it will take some time for a result because of the remoteness of many polling stations.

The Solomons 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.

The Solomons, a chain of 992 islands, was a British protectorate which gained independence in 1978.


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