Solomon Islands stages first election since end of peacekeeping intervention

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands went to the polls on Wednesday in the first election since an Australian-led peacekeeping intervention ended in 2013, with officials hoping biometric voter registration will end endemic voter fraud in the South Pacific island nation. The Solomons has been racked by instability since 1998, culminating in widespread ethnic violence and the deployment of a peacekeeping force in 2003. The peacekeeping intervention lasted a decade before being scaled back to a policing mission. The election will be the first under joint Solomons and international security with 1,000 police deployed at polling booths, often in remote islands that witnessed some of the fiercest fighting between Japanese and Allied forces during World War Two. Some voters will take days to reach polling stations by boat or on foot. Voting is expected to take three days to complete. Ahead of the poll, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo signed an "election transparency pledge" sought by the corruption watchdog Transparency International to try and ensure that voting will be above board. He also introduced biometric voter registration and issued voter identification cards to try and thwart multiple vote casting. Voters have been scanned across 867 polling stations to capture a defining feature, such as a thumbprint. "We're still concerned about what is essentially vote buying," said Louise Hiele, director of Transparency International's Advocacy Legal and Advice Centre. More than 280,000 voters are registered for the election after an audit removed 160,000 fraudulent registrations. Hiele said voter identification cards issued once a biometric reading of a voter had been taken were "hot currency" offered to some candidates in exchange for money or gifts. Hundreds of candidates and 12 parties will contest 50 seats in the Solomon Islands parliament, where shifting party allegiances often result in political instability. Lilo was appointed prime minister in 2011 after his predecessor resigned over allegations he had misappropriated a $10 million development fund provided by Taiwan. The Solomons is facing an economic recession as it tries to break from a dependence on subsistence employment. Australia & New Zealand Bank has reversed its growth forecast for the Solomons this year from 2.8 percent to negative 1.5 percent. (Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Michael Perry)