Violent post-election clashes and gunfire have rocked Papua New Guinea’s Highlands since Monday ahead of the partial return of writs by the country’s electoral commissioner on Friday afternoon.
Counting in 23 electorates of 111 was incomplete by Friday's extended deadline when commissioner Patilias Gamato went to the governor-general Sir Bob Dadae.
“I certify that the People’s National Congress (PNC) party has won the largest number of declared seats in the 2017 national election, Your Excellency, accordingly I advise that you call on the public officer of the PNC to receive the invitation on behalf of the party," Mr Gamato said.
Parliament is due to sit next Friday for the formation of government
“We’re look forward to forming government in the coming days and we believe the PNC has been given a mandate under the laws of this country governing the electoral process,”Mr O’Neill said at a press conference after the writs were returned.
“The law is very clear, the seats that are outstanding before the return of writs must be returned before the sitting of parliament."
Mr Gamato said he “can’t think of any” election where so many seats were undeclared at the return of writs.
“That is unfortunate but they are the circumstances because in some cases there were objections, delays,” he said.
Registrar of Political Parties Alphonse Gelu had called for a further extension for return of writs and was not present at the ceremony.
Widespread electoral roll irregularities, delayed voting, allegations of miscounting and fraud have marked the country's national poll.
Amid the struggle for power on Thursday was the alleged attempted kidnapping of one candidate at gunpoint by an opposing camp and two candidates were declared the winner in the same high-profile seat.
International observer groups have criticised the election for “widespread” and “alarming” electoral roll regularities and other serious flaws.
Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop declined to comment on whether she considered the election free and fair until after the “final reports” from four Australian parliamentarians observing the poll.
“There are parliamentary and other electoral observers in PNG and I am awaiting final reports from them,” Ms Bishop said.
“At the request of the PNG Government, Australia provided extensive technical advice and logistical support to PNG’s election authorities. We will continue to work with PNG to help strengthen its electoral system.”
With the writs returned, Mr O’Neill’s PNC with the backing of former prime minister Sir Julius Chan People’s Progress Party and various independents has about 30 seats.
“We humbly accept the invitation extended to us by the governor-general," Mr O'Neil said.
“I think the people have spoken. It is important we respect the mandate that a has been given.
“We have made some mistakes in government, but we will learn from it. It will be a better government.”
Sam Basil’s Pangu Party and Patrick Prauitch’s National Alliance, former prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, and a large group of independents are all jockeying to build a rival coalition.
The party with the largest number of seats is traditionally asked by the governor-general to try to form government a week after writs are returned.
Counting in undeclared seats has been extended to next Thursday allow as many MPs as possible to sit in parliament on Friday.
Disputes over the election results have seen rioting in some parts of the Highlands.
Mt Hagen is in lockdown and local media have posted footage showing crowds of people fleeing gunfire in the streets.
Tensions have escalated as results have been progressively declared, and challenged, resulting in confrontations between rival supports.
“Most residents living in Mt Hagen City are in fear of their life,” Graham Kommy, a manager at the Highlander Hotel, posted on social media.
“All business houses close since Monday till now. The Kagamuga Airport too was closed. There is no flights in and out (of) Mt Hagen. Every business houses comes to a stand still.
“There totally chaos everywhere in and around the city.”
Last week, two police officers were shot and killed in Wabag, the seat of the incumbent opposition leader, after allegations of bias were levelled against returning officers.
Former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta has condemned Thursday's double-declaration of winners in his seat by returning officers, saying it made a “mockery of the electoral process”.
Independent Sir Mekere won the seat of Moresby North-West, but a rival candidate - who came third - was also declared the winner by a rogue election official in bizarre ceremony at a luxury hotel filmed by a local television network.
“I feel that because the third candidate's paper was given to us as the winning candidate, I had to declare that as the winning candidate,” Returning Officer Moka Havara told EMTV on camera, as a man standing behind him told what to say.
The rival declaration of Joseph Tonde of the PNG One Nation Party was declared invalid by the Electoral Commission.
Sir Mekere has “called for a criminal investigation into this fraudulent behaviour".
"The perpetrators must be brought to account and prosecuted."
Defeated incumbent MP in the seat of Ijivitari, David Arore, allegedly tried to kidnap the winner at gunpoint in the capital in front of television crew from national broadcaster NBC.
“I saw policemen with guns. They tried to kidnap Richard Masere. One of the young policeman pointed a gun at me,” said East Sepik Governor-elect Allan Bird, who witnessed the incident as he was being interviewed by NBC.
“(David Arore) was the one coordinating the whole thing,” Mr Bird said.
Ahead of the return of writs, Mr O’Neill said the election was not without flaws but was still one of the best in decades.
“While the 2017 National Election has not been without its difficulties, including limited instances of unfortunate and deplorable acts, we have experienced the most peaceful and safe elections of recent decades,” Mr O’Neill said.
Rival political groupings are now in “camps” in the regional cities of Kokopo and Alotau, trying build numbers ahead of the return of government.