250 PNG BALLOT BOXES "LOST"

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By Jim Baynes

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 23, 2002 – Courier-Mail)---More than 250 ballot boxes have been destroyed or are missing in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the election chief has told the Supreme Court.

The Court is deciding what to do about the disastrous poll, in which about 30 people have died and thousands of votes have been lost or forged by armed bandits in some electorates.

The case is being heard concurrently with a request by the Electoral Commissioner to determine whether a new Parliament can sit without all the members having being declared.

In his affidavit presented to the Court this week, Electoral Commissioner Reuben Kaiulo blamed much of the disaster on the police force, as well as candidates and their tribal supporters.

Kaiulo, who was accused by Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta of "going into hiding" during polling, said it would be impossible to return results in at least two of the 109 seats of parliament.

In an astonishing remark, Kaiulo said reports that the election had failed in Enga province -- where a police station and ballot boxes were blown up with explosives -- had been "exaggerated."

Kaiulo also revealed that the Electoral Commission had not heard from polling officials in one remote electorate since the poll began.

"All road links are blocked off by tribesmen. Helicopter companies have refused to fly into the electorate because helicopters have been shot at and threatened," Kaiulo said.

Kaiulo compiled the report from the Commission's Returning Officers, who are part-time employees.

"The Returning Officer is of the view that some presiding officers have been kidnapped by candidates, others were threatened or refused to come forward, and many have taken sides with particular candidates," he said.

There were also documented incidents of assaults and threats against helicopter pilots, who left ballot boxes stranded in gun-infested territories.

One of the worst areas was the Southern Highlands town of Tari.

"Out of 80 ballot boxes, 45-50 boxes have been destroyed, looted and taken away. This leaves 30-35 ballot boxes still in the electorates, but it is not clear who has custody of the ballot boxes," Kaiulo said.

The court case involves a request by Attorney General Francis Damem to determine how an election in any particular seat can be deemed to have "failed."

Damem's Australian lawyer, Greg Egan, said the constitutional dilemma was similar to what would be faced if an earthquake causing "mass disruption and loss of life" occurred during an election.

The court's decision will be crucial because under new legislation the party with the most MPs has the first shot at forming a coalition government.

With 82 of the 109 seats declared today, Morauta's party was trailing that of founding father Sir Michael Somare, who has cobbled together a large opposition coalition.

The elections started on June 15, with the new Parliament scheduled to sit on August 5.

For additional reports from The Courier-Mail, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia)

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