KERRYN BAKER | East Asia Forum
CANBERRA - For the first time in 20 years, Papua New Guinea has no women at all in its 111-seat national parliament.
While a record 167 women (5% of the total 3,340 candidates), including the three female incumbents, contested the 2017 elections, none was successful.
The electoral contest in PNG is undoubtedly hostile to women, but there are three key pathways that could improve women’s electoral prospects.
First, the campaign playing field should be levelled out for women.
Money politics is a pervasive and, in many parts of PNG, a dominant aspect of election campaigning. The practices of vote-buying, vote-selling, gifting and treating are evident in all regions of PNG, and seem to have increased exponentially in the past few general elections both in terms of the number of people engaged in the practice and in the amounts spent.
Although it is illegal, candidates who participate in money politics and this style of campaigning do tend to perform better than those who do not.
Many female candidates, either for ethical or financial reasons, find themselves unable to compete in a contest characterised by money politics.
Women who contest elections are usually less well-resourced than their high-performing male counterparts, and this gender imbalance plays out in the election results.
A concerted effort to change the emerging electoral culture in Papua New Guinea, by tackling the rise of money politics and moving to curb campaign spending, could have real benefits for the competitiveness of female candidates. But this is likely to be politically unpalatable.
Despite the significant barriers to electoral success for women in PNG, it is important to note that there were numerous women who performed very well in the 2017 elections, even if they were ultimately unsuccessful.
So the second initiative that should be pursued is supporting these near-winners to recontest. Several female candidates placed second in their constituencies, including Delilah Gore who was the incumbent member for Sohe Open and Jean Parkop in Northern Provincial.
Others gained a credible third placing, including Rufina Peter in Central Provincial and Kessy Sawang in Rai Coast Open. These are impressive results in fiercely contested seats — each contested by between 27 and 42 candidates.
A credible result — such as a top five placing in a large field — can lay the groundwork for a successful run in the future.
Most of the new MPs who entered parliament in the 2017 elections had previously contested one or more elections — 62% of those who unseated incumbents had run in the same seat in the 2012 elections.
Entering parliament is usually a long-term goal, with preparation taking place across several electoral cycles. So encouraging the well-performing female candidates to consider running again in the future is very important as a long-term strategy for women’s electoral success.
Third, while the election of no women in 2017 is a discouraging sign, it is also a window of opportunity to promote special measures while the issue of women’s under-representation is receiving significant attention.
In 2011, the constitution was amended to allow for the possibility of reserved seats for women, although the required legislation was never passed. Advocates for greater women’s representation could look at reviving the campaign for reserved seats that stalled before the 2012 elections.
The constitution has already been amended to allow for the possibility, all that is needed is enabling legislation.
Papua New Guinea could also look at innovative models from around the Pacific region for inspiration on guaranteeing women’s representation.
In particular, the ‘safety net’ model adopted by Samoa prior to the 2016 elections is a potential template.
In the Samoan model, the minimum level of women’s representation in parliament is set at five seats. If less than five women are elected in any general election, additional female MPs are brought in. These additional members are the highest-polling (percentage-wise) unsuccessful female candidates in the election.
The advantages of this model are that all female candidates are running in the same process as their male counterparts, so they are not seen to be getting ‘special treatment’ through reserved seats. The provisions are only triggered then if women’s representation falls under a set amount, so the increase in parliamentary seats — often protested on financial grounds — is not guaranteed.
The under-representation of women in PNG politics is a complex and difficult issue. Institutional, cultural and socio-economic barriers to women’s leadership in PNG all influence outcomes at election time.
There is no ‘easy fix’, but these three pathways could help create opportunities for women to enter national politics and improve representation in the long-term.
Kerryn Baker is a research fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University