In the coming days, Papua New Guineans will head to the polls to vote in the first national election in five years.
A struggling economy, the impact of the pandemic and growing frustrations about failing public services are among the leading issues. The results of the election will be important not only to the country’s almost 9 million people, but also for the increasingly complex geopolitical landscape in the wider Pacific region.
The election process
Of the 2,351 candidates running in the national election, 118 members will be elected. Members of parliament will serve a five-year term, representing each of PNG’s electorates.
PNG has a multi-party system with numerous political parties, in which no one party often has a chance of gaining power alone. Parties must work with each other to form coalition governments.
Similar to other Commonwealth countries, the party or coalition with the most seats will form a government. Its leader subsequently becomes prime minister. No single party has yet won enough seats to form a government in its own right.
The two most prominent parties are the Pangu party, led by the incumbent prime minister, James Marape, and the People’s National Congress party (PNC), led by the former prime minister Peter O’Neill.
In an attempt to stop election fraud, the PNG electoral commission has scheduled polling for the whole country on a single date to limit the movement of people between provinces.
Eligible voters have to be at least 18 years old. Typical turnout in the past has been chaotic – often people don’t find their names on the electoral roll and there have been reports of underage voting and electoral fraud, when people vote using other people’s names or more than once.
Voting is due to start on Monday, with counting expected to begin immediately after polling, and results announced in mid-July.
Who are the frontrunners?
The two leading candidates for prime minister are Marape and O’Neill.
Marape was a close ally and member of the PNC when it was led by O’Neill, but he abruptly resigned in 2019 as finance minister and, after a month-long tussle for power, O’Neill resigned as prime minister. Marape took power in May 2019 in a parliamentary vote. He was later appointed leader of Pangu.
He promised to “take back PNG” and make it the “richest Black Christian country” in the world. While his government succeeded in introducing reforms in the country’s lucrative mining and resource industries, the state of the economy has left Papua New Guineans frustrated at how it is being managed. The health system also continues to struggle with the impact of Covid-19, and there is rising unemployment.
O’Neill and the PNC have garnered immense support on the campaign trail. In some provinces, supporters have gone as far as burning and defacing Pangu posters that feature Marape. Experts say O’Neill’s popularity is due to a growing disenchantment with Marape’s leadership, due to unfulfilled promises and grandstanding.
What regional issues are at stake?
China’s growing influence has been at the forefront of geopolitical discussions in PNG. Neighbour Solomon Islands has signed a security deal with Beijing.
In the past, Marape and O’Neill have on many occasions said that under their leadership PNG’s doors remain open to partnership opportunities. Both have often described PNG as a “friend to all and enemy to none”.
The country’s relationships with Australia, New Zealand and the US remain amicable, and include joint security training and support.
Both O’Neill’s and Marape’s governments have welcomed Chinese investment, though no security deals were signed during Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s trip to the country.
The ‘women’s election’?
Women could be voted into parliament after a complete absence for the past five years, though seven women have served as MPs since independence in 1975. This time, 142 female candidates are on the ballot.
PNG women battle for gender equality and against gender-based violence, and face high rates of maternal and child mortality.
In the past five years terrible crimes have been committed against women, sparking nationwide outcry and women’s rights marches.
“Clearly, the absence of any women from parliament since 2017, and their near absence at the provincial level, deprives women of both a voice in the legislature but also in government at the national and critical subnational levels,” said the executive director of the Institute of National Affairs, Paul Barker.
“It should be added that there are also very few women at the top levels of the public service as well, in contrast to back in the 1980s when women headed several of the major institutions, as well as being public servants and ombudsman commissioners.”
How safe are elections in PNG?
At least 30 people have been killed in election-related violence since May, and police are cracking down on illegal firearms at political rallies and gatherings.
In May local media reported two foiled assassination attempts against senior electoral officials in the Highlands; two people were shot dead in Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands and many more were injured in gun battles. Early this month the Mount Hagen international airport was forcibly shut down by political supporters.
This violence has been the norm during election periods. Before the 2017 election, more than 200 people died during campaigning, polling, counting and even after a candidate was declared the winner, prompting many to conclude that it was the worst election in PNG history.
Away from the violence, thousands of eligible voters could not vote due to a faulty and outdated electoral roll.
Official observers from the Commonwealth observer group and the Australian National University recommended that funds be given to the electoral commission to update the roll. To date, this and other recommended reforms have not been implemented. The government says Covid-19 and a lack of funding have prevented updates to the roll.
Barker said intimidation and violence could deter many voters and “failure to update the roll since 2017, while the 2017 roll was also subject to many flaws, including apparent systematic manipulation, reduces the capacity of many – especially younger people – to vote”.
“Unlike in many democracies where voter apathy reduces participation and weakens the outcome, PNG is a very proactive democracy with an almost carnival atmosphere, but also some very undemocratic processes, which severely undermine voters’ capacity to engage and have their preferences reflected in the outcomes.”