RETURNING officers are preparing for general elections to take place within the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in May, widely seen as the first step of the planned independence referendum for the region

Electorate officers from Australia and New Zealand have been invited to assist with the Bougainville House of Representatives election, which is to be run by the office of the Bougainville Electoral Commissioner.

Acting electoral commissioner George Manu has appointed three field coordination officers in the three regions of Bougainville in a bid to better coordinate election matters.

The three regional electoral officers – Peter Wanga in Northern Bougainville, Charles Kopana in Central Bougainville and Sam Roroga in Southern Bougainville – are all from Bougainville.

The Australian and New Zealand counterparts were to be largely involved in the preparation of documents and logistical arrangements for the poll, he told Radio New Zealand.

“Part of their job will also be to train. I have identified people who will be based with them so they can grasp any skills that they can acquire from the expatriate officers,” he said.

Under the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed in 2001, a referendum on the independence of the province must be held after 2015 and before 2020.

Voters would decide whether the region would become an independent nation or would remain an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key both pledged to ensure the referendum was free, fair and took place peacefully in a recent joint statement.

A joint international team of Australia and New Zealand technical election experts began deploying in early February 2015, working with Bougainville Electoral Commission staff in Buka, Arawa and Buin.

The assistance will include training, election operations, managing the electoral roll database, logistics, procurement and voter awareness.

The joint international team will work in Bougainville for about four months, until the conclusion of the election period.

Also pledging to assist was the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea Walter E. North announcing the award of a grant to support the region.

The grant, to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) aims to support Bougainville with upcoming electoral events, including planning for the referendum.

A team from the initiative, known as the Peaceful and Inclusive Elections and Referendum (PIER) project, arrived in Bougainville to begin work with local authorities in early March.

Mr North said the US Government wanted to work with the people of Bougainville and other partners to ensure the transparency of the election.

“Based on its extensive experience across the world, I expect IFES to provide first class international insights to the relevant authorities,” he said.