Father of The Man
Reports of major election failures in Hela Province

PNG mobilises for a tech-savvy election


Illustration - Simon LetchON THE KOKODA TRACK, about the point where General Tomitaro Horii's invasion force was halted in September 1942 in sight of the Coral Sea, a mobile phone will now pick up the signal from the Port Moresby network.

As Papua New Guinea starts voting today in its national elections, after much worry about whether they would be held within the constitutional timeframe or even run in a meaningful way, many political players and analysts are watching to see how the mobile phone is changing the game.

The last elections took place in 2007, the same year the government deregulated telecommunications and removed the monopoly of the state telecom agency. Two mobile phone companies, Digicel and BeMobile, jumped into the market, and their networks have since expanded to cover 75 per cent of the nearly 7 million population.

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One study a year ago put mobile phone penetration at 48 per cent of the population. Sarah Logan, at the Australian National University, cites estimates that 30 per cent have a mobile phone. Either way, it dwarfs the number with a fixed line connection.

Last year, the mobile networks added a broadband capability, so wireless technology is doing the same leapfrog for internet connectivity, which had linked up only 2 per cent of the population previously. As well as getting general net access, increasing numbers are using social media.

Facebook has 80,000 members in Papua New Guinea, double the total of a year ago. Most are under 40. The Twitter hashtags #PNG and #OccupyWaigani regularly break news much faster than any other source in PNG, Logan notes in the ANU Pacific Institute's Outrigger blog.

"The advent of mobile phones means PNG now arguably has a national communication network for the very first time, outstripping the relatively limited reach of PNG's relatively free press and TV broadcasters and overtaking its ineffective and expensive fixed line network," Logan says.

"Political blogs and Facebook itself also expand the media landscape considerably. This adds an important element of new possibilities of political communication to the already evident economic benefits of the introduction of new technology."

The political effects have already been felt in the capital, Port Moresby. During the political turmoil of the past 10 months, since the ousting of Sir Michael Somare from government, activists have been able to assemble large crowds to protest when public opinion turned against certain manoeuvres.

Another analyst, Danielle Cave, writing in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog, says: "The accessibility of mobile internet allows Papua New Guinea's Facebook users to share texts, articles, photos and video immediately while they are on the move - key ingredients for the co-ordination of a large public event."

As internet-capable mobile phones spread, "what will change are the tipping points that spark and inspire people to amplify their voices and co-ordinate a political response," Cave says.

Political leaders face "an increasingly vocal and powerful 'digital generation' that has proved it is possible to co-ordinate a mass rally, predominantly using social media tools, in a few days".

It can also happen in ways that are not planned and peaceful but chaotic, she warns, like the riots against Chinese-owned stores that have hit Port Moresby, Lae and Popondetta in the past three years.

Some politicians think, and hope, it will affect voting behaviour in these elections, which start in the lawless Southern Highlands region - awash with guns and cash from the $15 billion ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project - and take place in stages across the country over the next two weeks.

Bart Philemon, a respected former treasurer who is Public Service Minister in the outgoing government, thinks mobile phones may be a good influence. "People in the town areas like Moresby and Lae will be able to communicate with their families back in the villages, and that might influence how they vote," he said by phone from his Lae electorate.

"You have some electorates with 50, 60 even 70 candidates contesting - it poses a very difficult choice for uneducated voters. If they get some help from educated relatives living in urban areas it could be a good thing. I can't think of any negative."

Still, the strengthening modern civil society in Papua New Guinea has to contend with an intensified display of familiar negative factors. Analysts argue whether guns are more in evidence than in previous elections, but money power is bigger than ever.

"The availability of money for this election is significantly greater than we've seen in previous elections," says Annmaree O'Keeffe, the acting head of Lowy's Melanesia Program. "You hear rumours about cash being literally thrown into the crowds."

The huge number of candidates - 3435 for 111 seats - and proliferation of 46 parties, suggest elected office is more of a honeypot than ever, with the LNG project set to bring many billions of dollars into government revenue. "Everybody thinks there's a gold mine at the Parliament House," Philemon said. "Everybody thinks that's where they'll enrich themselves. That's the main reason they want to get there."

As well as many chancers with little or no experience in any responsible office, established politicians are wielding funds on a scale never seen before in Papua New Guinea. "For the first time now you have one political party that is reported to be spending 30 million kina ($15 million) - that's [Deputy Prime Minister] Belden Namah's party," Philemon said. "He's even bought his own aeroplane to fly around, a 10-seater."

After the two-week voting period, counting could take three weeks. Then the real contest of money and mobile phones takes place, as aspiring prime ministers try to build majorities. Traditionally, leaders take pledged supporters off to a remote and comfortable resort to lock them away from rivals while they try to draw in others selling their vote. Very senior Canberra sources say the price of a vote has now risen to $250,000.

"The thing that hasn't been a factor in previous elections is mobile telephony," O'Keeffe says. "The previous tactic - to give your MPs lots of money and lots of everything else but keep them isolated so they can't be influenced or sought after by competing forces - no longer exists. So, this will have an impact on the amount of money that is needed. So, $250,000 might actually be a pretty optimistic figure. It may be more, depending on how much you need them, how desperate you are."


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