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By Mary Johns

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, May 9) – More than 650,000 unused ballot papers printed for the last general elections are missing, according to an audit by the Finance Ministry.

In a press statement yesterday, interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry said this was proof that there was a direct attempt to "interfere with and manipulate the results of the 2006 general elections".

He said the report found that the Elections Office failed to keep a diligent record of ballot papers issued to polling stations or to ensure that proper returns were filed by every returning officer at the end of the polls.

The audit report also revealed that close to 1,985,640 ballot papers were printed against a total of 842,594 votes cast, more than double the requirement.

"These are very serious breaches of the Electoral Act and the Public Service regulations," Mr Chaudhry said.

"They are tantamount to gross dereliction of duty, if not direct attempts to interfere with and manipulate the results of the 2006 general elections."

The mere fact that a total of 665,256 unused ballot papers were unaccounted for, is in itself sufficient to raise serious questions about the credibility and integrity of the 2006 general elections, he said.

Mr Chaudhry said the report found the Supervisor of Elections Office guilty of gross extravagance, wastage, failure to keep within budgetary allocations, failure to return equipment and failure to submit proper reports on funds spent as required under the Public Service Commission's accountability procedures.

He said he had handed the findings of the audit to the anti-corruption unit.

"I have handed the findings of the special audit report to the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption for a proper investigation to be instituted into the conduct of the 2006 general election and criminal dereliction of duty by the Supervisor of Elections," he said.

Furthermore, Mr Chaudhry said a detailed audit of ballot papers was impossible because the Elections Office:

Mr Chaudhry said the audit found the report as gazetted by the Elections Supervisor contradicted reports submitted by Returning Officers and that not all Returning Officers submitted reports after polling to the Elections Office as required under the Electoral Act.

Former Elections Supervisor Semesa Karavaki last night said all the records were intact when he left the post.

"They have an agenda. There is no credible information on hand, the records were all there when I left," he said.

"Unfortunately I am not there to answer those queries.

"I don't know who they spoke to because no papers were missing."

"They did an audit when Chaudhry came into the Ministry of Finance and they found nothing missing."

He said after the elections he had directed an audit be carried out.

"It was about to be completed in December when the coup happened," he said,

"The Ministry of Finance took these results but they didn't use it.

"I think this was done to further someone or some people's agenda or their perverted ways."

He said given the opportunity, he could have easily discredited the audit's report.

"If there is any credible information they should take it to where it's supposed to go to court," said Mr Karavaki.

"The elections process was supervised by the whole world and it was endorsed that it was free and fair.

"All these things they are saying are a waste of taxpayers' money.

"Nowhere in the world do you print the exact number of ballot papers to match the number of registered voters. You have to equip each polling station

"What happens if there are 50 ballot papers in a book and only five people turn up to vote that particular day these are things that need to be taken into consideration," he said.

According to Mr Chaudhry, the Act requires presiding officers at the end of polling each day to prepare a statement (inventory) for each constituency detailing:

The total number of ballot papers entrusted to him; total used unused ballot papers; total spoiled ballot papers; and totals tendered ballot papers.

"If these specific instructions were followed, why are 665,256 unused ballot papers missing?" he asked.

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