By Harry Pearl
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea (PNG) began voting for a new parliament on Saturday in a two-week-long election to decide who will lead the resource-rich nation through a period of significant economic uncertainty.
PNG has been hit hard by a slump in oil and gas prices and a 2016 drought that crippled farming and brought production at its largest copper mine to a halt.
The country’s credit rating was downgraded to B2 by Moody’s in April last year, reflecting ongoing balance of payments pressures that have been compounded by the slump in global commodity prices.
Despite that, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill is in a strong position to retain power, although experts say elections in the South Pacific nation are hugely unpredictable.
“You have to treat this as 111 separate elections because what matters to the voters in most areas is incredibly local issues - what services are getting sent to them from their local member,” said Jonathan Pryke, a research fellow in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program. (There are 111 seats in the PNG parliament.)
Despite its mineral wealth, which includes Exxon Mobil's $20 billion LNG plant, most of Papua New Guinea's nearly eight million people live at subsistence level on islands, atolls and in remote mountain villages.
A total of 3332 candidates - including 165 women - from 44 political parties will contest the election.
O'Neill, who came to power in 2012 promising to rein in corruption, has faced allegations he authorized millions of dollars in fraudulent payments to a leading law firm.
In 2014, an anti-corruption watchdog issued an order for his arrest over the incident, which O'Neill denies. He refused to comply and stripped the watchdog of funding.
Opposition politicians have harshly criticized the prime minister over his economic management, which has been marked by deficit spending.
O’Neill finished up campaigning on Friday by visiting remote villages in his home district of Ialibu-Pangia in Southern Highlands Province.
“We still have some weeks of voting and formation of Government, and I call on all candidates and members of the public to continue to maintain the same calm and peaceful approach to voting,” he said in a statement.
Violence and corruption, most notably vote-buying, have been a feature of elections in Papua New Guinea since it gained independence from Australia in 1975.
Australia is working closely with PNG to support the election, seconding experts from the Australian Electoral Commission and deploying 200 defense force personnel in Port Moresby, the capital.
It has also deployed military aircraft to deliver election materials to remote communities.
Electoral observers from Commonwealth nations are in the country to observe the election.
The official result is due by July 24.
(Reporting by Harry Pearl; Editing by Eric Meijer)