In a surprise move, the hardline Me’ekamui militia group has voiced its support for incumbent president John Momis in the election underway in Bougainville.
The autonomous region in Papua New Guinea will soon begin a five-year window during which it will hold a referendum on independence from the mainland.
The president elected in this vote will negotiate the terms and date of the referendum, part of a peace agreement signed after the civil war with PNG.
Of the nine presidential candidates, Mr Momis is the favourite to win when the results are announced next month.
The Me’ekamui militia, which controls access to the controversial Panguna mine, had thrown its support behind Mr Momis, who they said has promised to reserve seats for them in future governments.
“I declare that Momis has 100 per cent [support] from the people here and most of the Me’ekamui government,” Me’ekamui defence force commander Moses Pipilo said.
The office of Mr Momis, a former Catholic priest and one of the only candidates who is not an ex-combatant, did not confirm seats had been reserved for militia members.
The Me’ekamui government are the landowners of the Panguna copper mine, which closed in 1989 when environmental damage and compensation sparked the civil war.
‘Small hiccups’ in largely smooth week of voting
The ABC’s PNG correspondent Liam Cochrane, who is in Bougainville, described the Panguna polling station as “like time had left it behind”, with “lush jungle” beginning to take over the empty buildings left behind by the conflict.
But he said in the largely idyllic and conflict-free week of voting, there were “a few hiccups”.
He said people had complained that illiterate voters were being assisted by only one other person and were potentially being guided towards one candidate.
“A few people told us that what they wanted is for at least two people to help these illiterate voters cast their ballots and make it a more neutral process,” Cochrane said.
At some polling stations people turned up to vote but found their names were not on the electoral roll.
“This was particularly a problem in the polling station at Mabiri,” Cochrane told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat.
“Some of the international observers I spoke to said they turned up to find that 130-odd were enrolled on the roll and only 17 females, so something clearly has gone very wrong with the roll there.
“And when voters turned up, others found the situation and simply turned around in disgust.”
There will be a further week of polling allowed for bad weather or other delays next week followed by a week of counting, with a similar contingency week.
A result is expected on June 8.