By Hilaire Bule in Vanuatu
It is election day in Vanuatu as polling stations throughout 18 constituencies open their doors.
Officials were expecting to conduct the general election in 2024 until a snap election was triggered after the dissolution of the country's parliament on August 19 by President Nikenike Vurobaravu, and on the eve of a motion of no-confidence against the now caretaker prime minister Bob Loughman.
Principal electoral officer Joe Johnson Lati said voting across Vanuatu officially started today with polling stations opening at 7:30am today and closing at 4:30pm.
An extension can be granted if people are still in line at 4:30pm.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced Thursday afternoon, but Lati said it may take around one week to confirm the official results after the electoral commission receives all ballot boxes.
The chairman of the Electoral Commission Edward Kaltamat said the information received from the islands yesterday, was that ballots boxes and papers have already reached respective polling stations.
More than 300,000 eligible voters have registered to vote for the 52 members of parliament.
For some it is an arduous task that will require an early start to their day.
"We are wake up in the morning and we walk to the provincial headquarter, it takes me about 35 minutes to walk," voter Harry Robert said.
More than eight million ballot papers have been printed and delivered by boat and helicopter to polling stations across Vanuatu.
"The only challenge we have is the time frame. It is too short, but we can't do much about that because it is in the constitution so we have to manage in the time frame," Joe Johnson Lati said.
It has been a logistical challenge to prepare for this snap election, even with all boots on the ground.
"It's really a concern for both the voters and the candidates because they have to act within the time frame," he said. "It is frustrating at this certain point of time but we encourage them to manage. It is not a choice; it is an obligation."
There are hopes voter turnout will be higher than the last general election in 2020, which was held during the Covid-19 pandemic, Head of news at the national broadcaster, VBTC, Stevenson Liu said.
He said voter turnout was low, sitting at around 70 percent.
This year there are also other factors such as seasonal workers overseas which could influence turnout.
"We have quite a number of voters who are actually overseas on RSE - we are talking about around 11 thousand people in both Australia and New Zealand so it will depend on how far they have gone in preparing proxy votes," Liu said.
Election day, Thursday the 13th, is a public holiday to give people time to walk to polling stations. For many it will be an hours-long walk.
"Everybody is going to walk together," one voter on Vanua Lava said.
"We have organised transport to take old people or disabled people to vote," a voter on Gaua Island said.
Presiding officer for one of the largest polling stations on Gaua Island Jaques Berry said it all feels very rushed.
Instead of officials being trained two to three weeks before people head to the polls, in Gaua, training has taken place just one day out.
"I'm very concerned about our polling officials; I really want them to be prepared so we can have a smooth election," Berry said. "I am afraid that we will have some issues, that we will have another bi-election or another election for our constituency."
Despite the challenges teams across Vanuatu have faced due to a short time frame to deliver, Lati said his team is doing the best it can with what it has.
He wants to remind eligible voters they can vote with their national ID card and/or their voting card at the moment, as Vanuatu is in a transition period where you can use both.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced Thursday afternoon, but Joe Johnson Lati said it may take around one week to confirm the official results.
Delivering ballot boxes
Ballots boxes and papers have reached respective polling stations across the islands of Vanuatu.
The last electoral materials were dropped by helicopter on Mataso and Makira on Tuesday, Kaltamat said.
Two attempts to reach both islands by boat failed due to the bad weather, so a helicopter was called in to help.
In Pentecost, there are reports of police escorting ballot boxes, with young people from Enkul Village helping too. They delivered them to Vanmel and Tsingbwege polling stations on the eastern part of the islands.
The ballot boxes made it the night before after a long journey.
Meanwhile, Kaltamat said until late yesterday, there were no reports from the 18 constituencies that they hadn't received their ballot boxes.
Propping up polling stations
In Port Vila and Efate constituencies, the Electoral Commission erected six tents as polling stations to host the voting.
Kaltamat said his staff have been working very hard to set them up.
The tents were erected on Malvatumauri premises, Municipal Hall, Saint Joseph at Nambatu Lagoon, Ham Lini at Teouma and Enam Presbyterian Church alongside Erakor Road.
In past elections, people cast their votes inside permanent buildings, but this time, they will exercise their voting rights in a tent.
At Teouma, people used to vote at the Late Chief, Andrew Kalpoelep's property, but it has been transformed into a camp for a candidate of a political party, so they have to build the polling station at the property of Ham Lini.
Kaltamat said they have been working very hard late yesterday evening to allow voting to take place.
He said they also equipped those tents with electrical lights in case voting goes late.