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The bumpy road to government: Papua New Guinea’s election

The people of Papua New Guinea have been in political limbo for months. Jeremy Weate

The bumpy road to government: Papua New Guinea’s election

Papua New Guinea is currently in the midst of its eighth post-independence national election. The elections were due to conclude last week, but have dragged on due to poor organisation on the part of the Electoral Commission, security issues, and bad weather.

Of the 46 parties registered, oddly it seems only 22 have endorsed candidates. More than half of the 3435 candidates contesting the 111 seats for the National Parliament are standing as independents.

Ending the impasse

The election has brought an end to more than eight months of political impasse following the unconstitutional dumping of Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, while he was recovering from medical treatment in Singapore, and the election by parliament of a new prime minister, Peter O’Neill, in August 2011.

Voting has entered its fourth week. AAP/Eoin Blackwell

In December, the Supreme Court ruled against the parliament’s actions, endorsing Somare as the legitimate prime minister, but O’Neill and his erratic deputy, Belden Namah (a former member of Somare’s National Alliance party), ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling. Earlier, the O’Neill-Namah coalition had attempted to block a legal challenge and remove the chief justice, and had passed retrospective legislation to remove Somare from his parliamentary seat.

After August 2011 there were thus two claimant prime ministers, each with his own cabinet, and for a while two police commissioners and two governors general.

But by December 2011 the public service and the police had lined up behind O’Neill, who had a clear parliamentary majority, and locally and internationally the O’Neill-Namah coalition was generally accepted as “the government” of Papua New Guinea.

A national election scheduled for June-July 2012 seemed to offer the only way out of this impasse. But in early 2012 Namah began pressing for a postponement of the election, despite statements by the Electoral Commissioner that the election must go ahead. O’Neill promised the election would be held on schedule, but subsequently supported a parliamentary vote to defer it.

At the same time, O’Neill’s office announced that emails and blog sites would be monitored and critics “misrepresenting” the government’s actions would be “dealt with”, and Namah, as acting prime minister, declared a state of emergency in the national capital and highlands provinces.

By May, however, with electoral preparations proceeding and more than 3000 candidates out campaigning there was little chance of anyone stopping the election. Polling commenced on 23 June and continues this week.

New election, old problems

Early polling has run into problems. There have been a number of violent incidents, including election-related deaths and intimidation of voters by armed men in several parts of the country (particularly the volatile highlands provinces). Ballot boxes have been hijacked, and there have been delays in the commencement of voting due to the late arrival of ballot papers. Electoral and security personnel are reported to have been demanding prior payment of allowances, and there are complaints that large numbers of prospective voters have been unable to find their names on the rolls. These problems are not new.

It is likely that the 2012 election will be seen as more flawed than that of 2007, but maybe not as a flawed as that of 2002 (which was generally regarded as the worst in the country’s history and involved the declaration of “failed elections” in six Southern Highlands electorates) – though there are already calls for the declaration of failed elections in several constituencies.

Any coalition is possible

Writs are due to be returned by 27 July. Once results have been declared there will be the usual scramble by leaders of the more successful parties to put together a coalition government. Every government in Papua New Guinea’s political history has been a coalition, in recent years coalitions of several parties and independents.

The leader of the party with the most seats will be invited to form government (though that does not guarantee that leader will become prime minister).

It is hard to tell at this stage who this might be. Some pollsters are tipping O’Neill’s People’s National Congress to win the most seats, but Somare’s National Alliance cannot be ruled out, and both Namah (Papua New Guinea Party) and former deputy prime minister under Somare, Don Polye (Triumph, Heritage, Empowerment Party) see themselves as likely winners.

Whoever wins, almost any coalition is possible, the more so as tensions between O’Neill and Namah have escalated during the election.

Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that a new government can turn back from the dangerous political tendencies that have characterised the period since August 2011. Someone has to provide the effective governance needed to address Papua New Guinea’s many challenges.