Papua New Guineans will go to the polls on 2 July 2022. This will be the tenth time citizens will exercise their universal suffrage since the first post-independence election of 1977. The process started with the issuing of writs on 12 May 2022. Sadly, the country lost its deputy prime minister (DPM) in a fatal car accident the day before, resulting in the deferral of nominations by a week. At the close of nominations on 26 May 2022, 53 political parties had registered and a total of 3,493 candidates had nominated to contest. Out of these, only 142 were female candidates. However, there was a recent twist when the Supreme Court in a ruling ordered the Papua New Guinea Electoral Commission (PNGEC) to withdraw the nominations of convicted candidates according to law. All writs must be returned by July 29th and then a new government can be formed.
We have already seen pre-polling violence, while other recurring issues remain at the forefront of election preparations. This year’s elections may be no different to the previous ones, except that election related violence, fraud, and irregularities may increase. It seemed from the start that the PNGEC is ill prepared to confront the challenges ahead, and is now scrambling for options, most importantly in logistics and security. The Australian government has stepped in with a contingent of 130 defence personnel to provide support.
Some key features: What to expect
Election fever hit the country well before writs were issued. Many candidates and their supporters were using social media to promote their policies and campaign slogans. Incumbents were seen cutting ribbons and launching projects, something that has been less evident in the past four years. When asked if premature campaigning was illegal, some said this was purely an awareness drive, and in no way contravened election laws. However, PNG’s Electoral Commissioner frankly said such practices were in direct breach of the country’s election laws. Election laws remain weak with many loopholes.
With nominations came violence. In the Western Highlands Province, nominations were chaotic due to a dispute in the appointment of two returning officers by an incumbent candidate and his supporters, which led to the sabotaging of the Mt Hagen airport. In Eastern Highlands Province, five vehicles belonging to an incumbent MP were torched by frustrated supporters of a rival candidate. There are numerous other examples, predominantly in the Highlands region.
These pre-polling incidents are an indication that election violence is expected to be worse in the polling and post-polling phases. An election report by the Australian National University which examined the elections in 2017 cautioned that if the PNG government did not address some of the recurring issues, future elections might be even more chaotic.
COVID-19 and health care preparedness are not up to speed, creating a further set of complications. Less than four per cent of the population is vaccinated, based on available data. At the current rate of infection, which averages 31 new infections per day, it is worrying how this rate will peak during large election gatherings, and how the capacity of the country’s ailing health care facilities will deal with the aftermath. Control from the National Control Centre for COVID-19 in Port Moresby is waning in the face of escalated election activities and crowd gatherings.
The PNG parliament has approved seven new open electorates in March. But concerns were raised about the funding, logistics, and administration of these extra seats.
About 12 million ballot papers will be distributed during polling. In a country of about 9 million people, voter turnout has always been problematic. For instance, in 2017, the voter turnout was only 51.62 %. Participation is expected to be low again this election. With extra ballot papers lying around, there is potential for some people to hijack the process by inflating the electoral roll and illegally marking the ‘unaccounted ballot papers’ for their candidates.
One key test for PNG’s fragile democracy will be women’s political representation. Currently, PNG is one of only three countries in the world to have no female legislators in its national parliament. Social bias, and other structural and cultural barriers such as money and big man politics continue to push women leaders to the peripheries of politics. Of the 142 women contesting, we hope that at least several would show up in the 11th parliament to save PNG’s democracy from further ridicule.
There are early indications of a showdown between two rival political parties: Pangu Party led by the incumbent PM James Marape, and the People’s National Congress Party led by the former PM Peter O’Neill. Regardless of party branding and campaigning efforts, it is expected that most voters will still vote based on personality and patronage, and not on party lines and policies.
The role of media in promoting a free, fair, open, and inclusive election is very crucial at this point. While mainstream media may be verified for authentic content, the dangers lie on social media as there is sheer volume of malicious information online. However, most candidates and voters will more likely use social media during election than they will mainstream media.
Overall, free, fair, and safe elections in PNG cannot be guaranteed. Elections are for more than just voting – it is a time for partying, feasting, and even settling old scores.
Teddy Winn is presently an Australian Awards scholar pursuing a PhD in political science at James Cook University, Australia. His research interests include corruption studies, governance, patron-client politics, development politics, political anthropology, and regional security.