Papua New Guinea has just come out of its 11th national election which took much longer than expected. The date for the return of writs was deferred four times between 29 July 2022 and 12 August 2022, prompting PNG’s former chief justice, Sir Arnold Amet and the former electoral commissioner, Patilias Gamato to suggest the likelihood of a constitutional crisis. Fortunately, this didn’t eventuate. Overall, the 2022 national election could go down in history as one of the worst elections since 1977, comparable only to the 2002 national election. While the 2002 national election was the most dramatic, this year’s election was regarded as the most disruptive and worst ever on so many levels. Many people including international observers, commentators, and candidates concluded that the election was mired in controversy from the beginning. In 2002, six electorates failed based on widespread cheating. Should a similar assessment be used for the 2022 national election, many electorates would fail the “free, fair, and just election” test.
Although the PNG Electoral Commission was blamed for its poor handling of the election processes, some election officials said funding delay meant the electoral rolls could not be updated in time. Voter turnout was high around the country, but the poorly updated electoral rolls saw thousands of voters turned away at polling sites. There was also a lot of. The PNG media reported that the costs of rebuilding destroyed properties could be in the hundreds of millions, while election-related deaths could be anywhere between 50 and 100 as post-election violence continues in some parts of the country. People in some areas were internally displaced as election conflicts escalated.
The only thing that worked in this election as with past elections, was that an outcome was achieved – the country has a new parliament, formed on 9 August 2022. Despite all the frenzy and the questionable process involved in the election, a new coalition government was formed, led by PANGU Party. Of the 105 writs received on 9 August, only 98 MPs took part in the election of the speaker and the prime minister. James Marape, leader of PANGU Party was reelected unopposed 97-0 on the floor of parliament. The only abstention was Marape’s predecessor and leader of the People’s National Congress, Peter O’Neill (who left the chamber before the vote took place). For the first time since the first post-independence election of 1977, members from both sides of the house voted unanimously for the prime minister. During the formation of the 11th parliament, twenty seats had no representation owing to counting delays caused by violence and disruption by some candidates and supporters.
What didn’t work was that perennial challenges of the previous polls placed a heavy toll on aspects of the election processes. According to the Commonwealth Observer Group’s interim report, the centralised structure of election administration meant there was poor coordination with provincial election offices, poor electoral roll administration meant that many voters were disenfranchised, funding delays meant previous and current bills were not paid on time, and marginalised voters were excluded from participating fairly. The disenfranchisement of marginalised voters including older women and disabled voters was caused by uncontrolled rioting and wanton violence. Vulnerable voters, especially in some parts of the highlands, were harassed, intimidated and chased away by armed young men. The tendency of the PNGEC to push aside recommendations from the previous elections on how to fix parts of the broken electoral system left a lot to be desired.
The incumbency turnover rate this election is expected to be between 40 to 50 %. Several senior Members of Parliament lost their seats in this national election. Alan Marat, Patrick Pruaitch, Davis Steven, Charles Abel, Nick Kuman, Benny Allan, Paias Wingti, Fabian Pok, and Wera Mori were some senior parliamentarians unseated by first-time candidates. With their loss, the new parliament and government stand to lose experience and institutional memory. Their loss could be partly explained by the usual indicators of lack of trust, voter frustration, and failure to deliver on previous election promises.
Women candidates performed exceptionally well, with a handful finishing in the top five this national election. Despite the challenges and barriers women candidates faced, PNG finally has two women MPs after a hiatus of five years (2017-2022). Although those advocating for temporary special measures said this was not enough, this represents a significant victory for all women across the country. The election of Ms Rufina Peter and Ms Kessy Sawang brought to the legislative chamber a wealth of institutional experience in government, the private sector and NGOs.
Long after a new parliament was formed, the PNGEC is seeking further extension of writs for the two remaining seats including the National Capital District Regional seat and the Southern Highlands provincial seat. The North Bougainville seat is confirmed for a by-election after its MP was posthumously declared following his death during counting. A couple of seats may be unrepresented for some time until their writs are returned.
We can expect some results to be contested in the court of disputed returns. How many is anyone’s guess. In 2017, there were 79 petitions, with 16 dismissed based on grounds of incompetency. Some election petitions may take half of the parliamentary term to reach an outcome. The case of Don Polye vs Alfred Manase of 2017, perhaps was the longest that lasted for almost four years. The impacts this would have on voters are counter-productive and long-lasting– voters would be deprived of much-needed services and quality representation as energy is diverted to lengthy court battles.
Prime Minister James Marape announced his full 33 member-cabinet on 23 August 2022. Marape retained twenty-three incumbent ministers and appointed nine new ones. Ministerial portfolios were distributed on the ratio of 1:3, where, for every three MPs a party has, it gets allocated one ministry. Pangu Party returned 38 MPs and got nineteen ministries, followed by the United Resources Party, who returned eleven MPs and got five ministries, National Alliance returned six MPs and was awarded two ministries, while People’s Party (4), People’s First Party (4), Social Democratic Party (3), PNG National Party (2), Allegiance Party (1), and THE Party (1) all were allocated one ministry each.
The United Labour Party has three MPs, but was overlooked, while the People’s National Congress, the second biggest party led the Opposition. Kessy Sawang, a member of the People’s First Party, and the only female MP in the government bench was overlooked for a ministry. In a Post-Courier report, Marape announced that one of the two women will balance his cabinet. However, Marape backflipped suddenly and left Ms Sawang out, arguing that Papua New Guineans must stop making gender a big issue. Sadly, this type of mindset will continue to lock away the immense potential women leaders have and would bring to the legislative chamber.
Three new ministries were created including Ministry of Coffee, Ministry of Oil Palm, and Ministry of Livestock. These ministries were ridiculed both nationally and internationally, but Marape explained that their creation was in line with the idea of growing the economy through increased investment in specific renewable sectors of the economy, with the key emphasis on downstream processing. The intention might be right, but it might not materialise if there is no balance between the capital-intensive extractive sector, and the non-capital-intensive renewable sector.
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.