BATTLE ON FOR NUMBERS IN SOLOMON ISLANDS PRIME MINISTER RACE

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HONIARA, Solomon Islands (December 10, 2001 - Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation/PINA Nius Online)---The numbers game is on in the race to be Solomon Islands prime minister, with several political parties and groups claiming support in the newly elected Parliament.

The latest claim comes from the newly formed Association of Independent Members. It reported that 13 of its members were returned in last week's elections.

Association member and newly elected MP for East Are'Are, Edward Huniehu, further claimed that seven candidates affiliated with it also won seats.

The group is also believed to be seeking the support of eight other individual independent members.

This would give it a possible 28 votes in the 50-seat Parliament. But SIBC has been unable to verify Mr. Huniehu's claims, and some independents are known to be close to other parties.

Among the political parties:

* The Peoples Alliance Party (PAP) -- once the country's dominant political party- - continued to claim 20 seats. It said it is continuing to talk with individual MPs as they come into Honiara.

* The Solomon Islands Alliance for Change (SIAC) -- which had led the government forced out in last year's Honiara coup -- has won 12 seats. It includes several men regarded as possible prime ministers.

* The Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) -- which led the government voted in following the takeover of Honiara by Malaita Eagle Force militia and elements of the police field force -- has been reduced to what appears to be four or five supporters in Parliament.

Parliament meets next Monday to elect the prime minister, who will form the new government.

The general election is the first following the Townsville Peace Agreement, which ended two years of ethnic conflict.

The country currently faces financial crisis, an economy in nosedive and continuing law and order problems.

Lobbying is expected to intensify leading up to the election of the prime minister. Political parties will try to win support, especially from the 31 new MPs, whether they are affiliated or not affiliated with any political party.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Observer Group said it hopes the election success will not be jeopardized in the vote for prime minister.

Group leader Bowen Wells said it is leaving a member, Lucy Bogari, from Papua New Guinea, to observe the formation of the government, especially the election of the prime minister.

SIBC has also confirmed that Australia and New Zealand will have observers stay behind for the PM election.

Australia is also providing a Twin Otter aircraft it used to transport observers to now help bring the new parliamentarians to Honiara.

Mr. Wells said his group is not clear whether the possession of arms and the militant reputation of some candidates actually influenced the voters in certain constituencies. But he said his group came across some evidence that suggested that people were frightened in some constituencies and it is for this reason it is saying some results are unreliable.

He said none of the members of his group actually saw any guns during the elections. But one of his members heard shooting of guns at Malu'u on North Malaita.

Mr. Wells said the presence of guns was made very clear but they were not shown at the polling stations.

An estimated 500 high-powered weapons are still unaccounted for following the ethnic conflict.

At least one winning candidate on Malaita has been assaulted, but police indicated this could be over a land dispute.

Mr. Wells said for the Solomon Islands to make progress it is essential that all aspects of governance be improved, starting with the enforcement of law and order.

Without enforcement of law and order, he said, it is impossible for development to take place, adding that once Solomon Islanders begin to believe in themselves, investment in the economy will follow from foreign investors.

Mr. Wells also said that the Commonwealth Observer Group is making recommendations to enable elections to take place more easily and efficiently.

There were lots of complaints about voter registration, he said.

The Commonwealth observers have proposed that the Electoral Commission Office continue after the elections, starting immediately with improving the registration process.

The Boundaries Commission should also meet immediately to address the huge differences in numbers among the constituencies, he said.

Speaking at a farewell function for the international observers, Electoral Commission chairperson Paul Tovua said aid donors have put a lot of money into assisting with the elections.

Mr. Tovua challenged the aid donors not to leave now but to continue the process of trying to get the country back to where it was before the conflict.

He said the success of the elections proved wrong those politicians who warned of a constitutional crisis if the elections were held on December 5.

Mr. Tovua told the observers that there was enormous pressure on the commission by politicians and the government not to go ahead with elections.

He said despite the fact that there was no money in the Solomon Islands, international friends came to the rescue and stood by the commission.

Mr. Tovua thanked Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the United States, Japan, the European Union and others for their assistance.

For additional reports from the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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