Papua New Guinean voters prepare to go to the polls

Papua New Guinean politics is never dull in what's called 'the land of the unexpected' and the people go to the polls on Monday after five turbulent years of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government.

Top of the election agenda are the economic management, provision of basic services, the perennial problem of corruption and there is little concern for external affairs.

Australia is PNG's biggest aid donor, with about $500 million spent annually, but the illegal asylum seeker detention centre on Manus Island and the Kokoda track are the two issues that dominate media coverage of its nearest neighbour.

This year's election is receiving little foreign media attention with the ABC, Radio New Zealand, Al Jazeera and SBS among the very few reporting in country, which may also be because of the difficulty in obtaining journalist visas.

Polls in PNG are a raucous, colourful and sometimes violent affair, with tens of thousands gathering, often in full traditional costume, for campaign rallies by party leaders.

There are over 3,000 candidates standing and 44 political parties in the country of 7.5 million people.

Stefan Armbruster
PNG election campaigning in full swing. Source: Stefan Armbruster

Apart from the established parties like Mr O'Neill's People's National Congress, National Alliance, People's Progress Party and Triumph Heritage Empowerment (or THE) Party, there is a selection of Monty Python-esque names called the Paradise Kingdom Party, Wontoks in Godly Service Party and PNG's very own One Nation Party (no relation). 

Ideology plays little part in the political system, rather wontoks (common language groups or clans) predominate parties.

A near 50 percent turnover of the 111 seats in parliament occurs, with an unpredictable scramble for power after a two-week polling period. The party with the most votes is invited by the governor-general to try to form a government.

No party has ever won a majority and ungainly coalitions are created, held together by strategic political appointments and largesse, but still in the last 42-years since independence the country has only had seven prime ministers. 

When Mr O'Neill was elected as prime minister in 2012, it was with a promising agenda of free education and health care, the establishment of an anti-corruption taskforce and an ambitious infrastructure program.

Underpinning this was expected revenue from a liquefied natural gas development but that fell short of expectations, which the government blames on low global commodity prices and saw it borrow heavily to meet its election promises.

Highway construction is promoted by the government as opening the rest of the country to improved health, education and other services.

PNG election campaign
PNG is getting ready to vote. Source: Stefan Armbruster

Now debt repayments and a foreign exchange shortage has hit the economy, which suffered a rating agency downgrade two years ago.

Drug shortages in the health system have occured and the education is under-resourced to cope with the many children now in school for the first time.

The government points to its achievements of infrastructure development, especially in the capital, and raising the country’s international standing by hosting the Pacific games and securing the APEC world leaders meeting next year.

In their shadow are the settlements of Port Moresby and elsewhere in the country, where people live in poverty. 

The promise of further revenues from another major LNG project and a gold mine are again being held up as economic saviours.

A turning point for the O'Neill government was when corruption allegations by Taskforce Sweep saw an arrest warrant issued for the prime minister. 

Concerns about the government's direction escalated when the anti-corruption body set up by the prime minister was shut down.

Far from putting the matter to rest, it escalated and peaked last year with university student protests demanding Mr O'Neill stand down.

Peter O'Neill at a PNG election campaign.
Peter O'Neill at a PNG election campaign. Source: Supplied

PNG's human rights record, already heavily criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, took a further battering when police turned their guns on students last June and more than a dozen were injured. 

The incident led to a vote of no confidence in parliament. Mr O'Neill comfortably won with the support of 85 to 21 MPs.

Preparations for the 2017 election have also been hit by budget difficulties - the election commission suffering a funding short-fall, raising concerns if there will be a free and fair poll.

Eight hundred election observers from the Commonwealth, Pacific nations and other invited bodies are in the country to monitor the outcome. 

In 2012 the Commonwealth election observer report was highly critical of many aspects of the poll but only a few recommendations, which is all they can make, have been acted on.

This year Australia has chipped in $8 million and defence force assets to make the election happen, less than half of what was provided for the 2012 poll.

PNG election campaign
Source: Stefan Armbruster

Concerns about ballot papers being printed in Indonesia, an incomplete electoral roll and security of ballot boxes is heightening tensions.

So far the eight-week pre-polling period has been more peaceful than previous years, with only a few deaths attributed to the campaign.

PNG has mobilised about 10,000 security personnel but again lack of funds has hampered deployment.

There is no opinion polling in PNG and Mr O'Neill has said he is confident of being returned to power but opposition parties say they sense a mood for change.

The results will be known some time in late July but the outcome will be subject to legal challenges, which took and under-resourced court system four years to finalise after the last election. 

5 min read
Published 22 June 2017 at 5:24pm
By Stefan Armbruster