* Election comes after 10-month crisis with two competing
* Control over huge resources-fuelled income boost at stake
* Large police, international presence aimed at preventing
PORT MORESBY, June 22 Papua New Guinea goes to
the polls on Saturday with almost 3,500 candidates battling for
just over a hundred parliamentary seats and control of what will
be an unprecedented boom in funds as projects to develop natural
resources start coming on stream.
Voters hope the two-week-long election will end a prolonged
political crisis which has left the South Pacific archipelago
with two competing prime ministers for much of the past year
after parliament backed Peter O'Neill, defying the courts which
supported elder statesman Michael Somare.
Analysts say it is impossible to predict a winner in a
country where more than half of sitting lawmakers lose their
seats at each election and where power goes to the leader who
can cobble a coalition in post-election negotiations.
"There are really two elections," Australian National
University Papua New Guinea specialist Sinclair Dinnen told
Reuters. "The first is where the people vote. Then after the
elections, we see the process of coalition formulation."
Adding to the uncertainty are the record number of 3,435
candidates from 46 political parties, all vying for just 111
seats in parliament.
Elections are highly charged events in Papua New Guinea, an
often volatile Melanesian country of 6.5 million people with 700
languages groups, 600 tropical islands and a mainland divided by
the rugged mountains of the volatile highlands region.
A massive police operation has been launched to prevent the
violence that has marred previous votes, with neighbouring
Australia and New Zealand lending assistance.
Despite its mineral wealth, successive governments have been
unable to deliver infrastructure or services to the people, with
around 80 percent of the population living on subsistence
village farming and small cash crops.
The elections, held every five years, take on extra
significance as lawmakers have access to millions of dollars
worth of discretionary funds which they spend on development in
their electorates, prompting often heated contests as clans
jostle to get their candidate into parliament.
"Members of parliament have become the main engines of
development," Dinnen said. "If they get their man in, and it
usually always is a man, then they may be rewarded."
The country is home to a $15.7 billion Exxon Mobil
gas export project, and the giant OK Tedi copper mine which
began production in 1987, as well as the Frieda River copper
project, run by Swiss-based global miner Xstrata.
Exxon's LNG project is expected to start production in 2014
and boost GDP by about 20 percent.
SOMARE RUNS AGAIN
Somare, the elder statesman of South Pacific politics at 76
and the country's first prime minister in 1975, is re-contesting
his seat despite being gravely ill for much of 2011.
More likely winners would be O'Neill, a former deputy prime
minister, and treasurer Don Poyle, and O'Neill's deputy prime
minister, Belden Namah, who last month led armed police and
soldiers into the Supreme Court to arrest the chief justice.
Around 1,000 police have been deployed around the country
for voting, which runs until July 6, with more than 500 sent to
the volatile Highlands regions.
"Unfortunately there is an expectation that there will be
election-related violence both in the lead-up to the election,
during the counting and in the immediate post-election period.
That's happened before," said Annmaree O'Keeffe, of the Lowy
Institute think tank.
Australia, Papua New Guinea's biggest aid donor, has issued
a travel advisory warning that the election period could be
Australia has sent 450 election observers, helicopters and
set up a police communications base in the capital Port Moresby,
while New Zealand has sent navy ships to help with election
The result is likely to be decided on July 27.
(Writing by James Grubel in Canberra; Editing by Nick Macfie)