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Mr Marape & the tenacity of PNG writers

Bougainville: Was the regional election fair?

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Michael Kabuni - asks how Bougainville electoral processes, so capable in the referendum of 2019, could be so questionable in last month’s regional election

MICHAEL KABUNI

| Academia Nomad | Edited

WAIGANI - Let’s begin with a quick summary of what this article is about.

Llane Munau last month was the lone female candidate contesting Bougainville’s regional election for a seat in Papua New Guinea’s national parliament.

Llane had written on Facebook that Bougainville people, particularly the womenfolk, had asked her “where is our vote?” [vot blo mipla go we?] when the counting tally had not reflected how they voted.

Llane followed up with a second article, which made me uneasy.

When PNG’s electoral commission set the dates for the Bougainville regional election in January 2021, the Bougainville electoral commission was not notified. At least that’s what it said.

And the polling period was initially set to run for two days, but reduced to one day for some polling stations. This information didn’t get to the people on time.

Then polling times for some stations (Central Bougainville for instance) were changed just before polling day. Again, many voters didn’t know about it.

In PNG, any last minute change is a bad idea, given the slow flow of communications flow. It’s even worse in Bougainville.

The number of polling stations, more than 440, exceeded the number of police personnel in Bougainville by hundreds, so the integrity of the voting process is now being questioned.

Scrutineers who observed the very low voting turnout at some stations (due to changed dates and reduced number of polling days) were surprised that ballot boxes supposed to have only six to eight ballot papers exceeded this number during counting.

Many other suspicious and questionable practices and outcomes are being reported.

These claims contrasts with the excellent Bougainville referendum conducted in 2019.

This was assessed as a great success, not only because it was fulfilling the third and last pillar of the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement (the three pillars of which were autonomy, weapons disposal and a referendum on Bougainville’s political future).

Local and independent observers said the referendum was regarded as transparent, credible, inclusive and innovative.

It applied several aspects of election management that had never been tried in PNG elections.

For instance, ballots were taken to old and disabled people who couldn’t come to polling stations.

People residing outside Bougainville – in PNG, Solomon Islands and even Australia - were able to vote.

People who didn’t have their names on the common roll were allowed to vote under a system of ‘provisional voting’.

Provisional votes were taken to the counting station and cross-checked with the updated common roll and, if the names were on the roll, counted.

So how did a region that did so well in the referendum of 2019 do so poorly in last month’s regional election?

Here is Llane Munau’s experience taken from her Facebook post and republished by Academia Nomad on 3 February. The views expressed are hers alone.

Llane Munau
Llane Munau - details how the recent Bougainville regional poll was "a failed election"

Journey of a Female Candidate – Part 2

By Llane Munau

THE first dates of the by-election were circulated and I sent the circular around. However, I felt I had to reconfirm the dates with OBEC (Office of Bougainville Electoral Commission).

OBEC didn’t know anything about the dates. So I looked again at the circular and it was from the PNG Electoral Commission.

Well understandably; it was an election for the PNG national government, not Bougainville. Anyway those first dates were postponed and then the second dates came out and I went and nominated.

During my six weeks of campaigning, I heard that there would be only one day of polling; even though the dates given said there would be two weeks.

When I enquired, the reply was that the PNG Electoral Commission would be trialling a new system of running the whole election so they could use it in the upcoming 2022 PNG national elections.

When polling day drew nigh, I got the list of places where polling would be held.

There were 442 polling sites throughout Bougainville. My first thought was, ‘We don’t even have 442 police personnel on Bougainville. Who will guard each polling venue?’

Then I looked at the places where people were expected to go and vote. Honestly, some villages were miles away from the allocated polling sites.

Bougainville has rugged terrain and people had to walk hours, even days to get to a voting venue in some areas.

Bougainville might be an island, but the geography and terrain make getting around very difficult.

I wondered how one day of polling could be achievable, but thought, with proper planning and preparation, maybe it could be achieved.

When we got the polling date (Wednesday 20 January), we started letting our supporters know to prepare them to turn up at the polling sites.

For us in Central Bougainville, there were 130 sites. However on the afternoon of 19 January we got word on the street that polling for Central would be postponed to Thursday 21st because the electoral team in Arawa (Central) had been slow to collect their polling items from Buka.

The funny thing is that South Bougainville already got its items (even though they’re further away from Buka than Central) and they polled on two days - the 20th and 21st - in some areas.

Because it was already late, we couldn’t pass on the message to voters in rural areas, and many rural voters turned up to polling venues on the given date, only to be told to come back the next day.

This was utter ignorance on the side of the electoral commission as it didn’t take into consideration that most voters, especially women and the elderly, couldn’t make the same journey to polling sites again the next day.

So for Central Bougainville the incompetency of a few electoral officers had great repercussions to the outcome of the election, something I believe OBEC and PNGEC must look into.

Many voters were deprived of the rights to vote. That is why the high number of ballot papers coming in from very remote polling venues raised great suspicion.

This was especially so when the ballots looked like they’d been written by the same person and there were no informal ballots.

Comparing this to the urban sites showed there were quite a number of informal ballots from the urban boxes.

Reports and surveys from around Bougainville say that not many people voted. The number of people who voted compared with the number of eligible voters was very low, perhaps lower than the cut off percentage required for a fair election.

This is a failed election.

From the current counting centre it seemed that 79,000 Bougainvilleans voted. However, reports from many presiding officers say not many people voted. Some boxes had as low as 6–12 people voting. So how did we come up with 79,000 ballot papers?

It seems that the whole election process was corrupted from the start by limiting it to just the one day of polling.

Moreover, the rolls didn’t have all the names, and voters were required to go back to their constituencies to vote. And there was no postal voting.

Bougainville, like most rural areas, cannot have ‘one day voting.’

We are not urbanised like a western country. We have rugged terrain and people have to walk hours, even days to get to a polling venue.

I understand this by-election was a trial by the PNG Electoral Commission.

Therefore, I believe the PNG government’s motive of conducting this by-election in Bougainville was not transparent right from the start in the boardrooms of Port Moresby.

I began writing my journey when my female (mamas) supporters asked where their votes had gone.

I’m now seeing that this question is just the tip of the iceberg, there is so so so much to be addressed or exposed in this whole electoral process in PNG and Bougainville.

For a better 2022 PNG national election and 2025 Bougainville election this one day polling system is useless and must not be used.

If it is used, I already see major problems arising in this beautiful nation. And, finally, please don’t keep using Bougainville as a testing ground for new formulas and systems.

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