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Papua New Guinea Goes to the Polls - 2002-06-15

Papua New Guinea goes to the polls Saturday, with the incumbent prime minister asking voters to give him more time to carry out reforms. A record 2,875 candidates from 43 political parties will contest the 109 parliamentary seats.

Papua New Guinea's reformist Prime Minister Mekere Morauta, who has been in power for nearly three years, faces 30 opponents in his own seat of Port Moresby. Among his opponents are all five of the country's former prime ministers.

Papua New Guinea is racked by economic crisis, soaring debt, crime and corruption.

Julius Chan, a former prime minister, is one of Mr. Morauta's opponents. He says Papua New Guinea has failed under the current government and needs new leadership. Mr. Chan has attacked Mr. Morauta's economic management and privatization program, and blamed him for the continuing slide in the value of the country's currency, the kina.

But Mr. Morauta is appealing to voters for a new five-year term, saying the country was on the verge of collapse when he came to power and he needs more time for his reforms to work.

He recently told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Mr. Chan has lost touch with reality. "He's gone into hibernation, that is he's still waking up. It would be helpful if he understood what he was talking about and wake up properly so that he can really understand the landscape of the country before he opens his mouth," he said.

A poll run by the National newspaper indicates Mr. Morauta has about 60 percent of the voters' support. However, support for his People's Democratic Movement party is only 25 percent.

Voting will take place over the next two weeks. Electoral officials say it could be at least a month before a new government is declared, because votes have to be counted from remote and inaccessible parts of the country.