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Election that secured O’Neill’s second term was chaotic

O'Neill - continuity but not stabilityTHE ECONOMIST

MARAUDING supporters went on the rampage with bush knives, candidates were imprisoned and kidnapped and police stations were burned during the six-week vote and count in elections in Papua New Guinea.

On 2 August the incumbent People’s National Congress party finally declared victory and Peter O’Neill was returned as prime minister for a second five-year term. But the violence augurs ill for the country’s stability.

The chaotic campaign reflected enduring problems in the political system. Most politics in PNG is local: the population of 7.6m people speak nearly 850 languages. Fully 44 parties took part and many candidates ran as independents.

All three members of the Election Advisory Committee, a government body supposed to monitor election proceedings, resigned in early July because, they said, they had not been given enough information to do their work.

One MP who was standing for the ruling party was imprisoned for inciting unrest in his township that left three people dead.

There were allegations of irregularities at the central level too, with reports of ballot papers being funnelled to the incumbent party. Patilias Gamato, the electoral commissioner, acknowledged that there were grave problems with the electoral roll and the conduct of officials.

Mr O’Neill took office in 2011 promising a crusade against corruption, but did little to clean up politics. He disbanded the anti-graft task-force he had set up when it started to investigate him.

During the campaign there were numerous reports of election officers taking bribes to help particular candidates or favouring relatives.

In Port Moresby, the capital, a returning officer appeared on TV in a dingy hotel room surrounded by heavies to announce the winning candidate in his district at the same time as his deputy declared the true victor to be Sir Mekere Morauta, a former prime minister who had come out of retirement to oppose Mr O’Neill.

Rival camps attempted to whisk away new MPs as they arrived at the airport from the provinces.

In spite (or perhaps because) of such shenanigans, politics in PNG appears to be growing more stable than in the past: in the 1980s and 1990s no government even survived a single term, much less won re-election.

Over the past decade the commodities boom has filled government coffers and eased the task of building and maintaining fragile, if fractious, coalitions. Since 2009 ExxonMobil and its partners have invested $19bn in a liquefied natural gas project in the southern highlands, the biggest private-sector investment in PNG’s history.

Local themes drowned out national ones during the campaign. But the country faces big problems. The violence before and after the election reflects deep social rifts, particularly in the highlands, which are riven by tribal conflict.

A fiscal crisis is also looming. Economic growth fell from 13% in 2014 to just 2% last year, according to the Asian Development Bank, and government debt has been rising fast. This is largely due to the falling price of natural gas, PNG’s main export.

Its timber industry faces renewed scrutiny too: several foreign companies recently suspended sales of products made from Papuan wood over concerns about illegal logging and rampant deforestation.

Mr O’Neill now has 18 months before the opposition can call a vote of no confidence—but they will be far from calm. He was elected by 60 votes to 46, a smaller majority than is typical (the vote had to be delayed when two men turned up purporting to represent the same constituency).

Most MPs are first-timers and in hock to a small number of influential figures. Mr O’Neill is also likely to face challenges in court over the tempestuous election that returned him to office.


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