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PNG’s political system ‘hijacked’, says Dr Joe

A voter ponders (ABC)
Making his mark for the nation - a voter ponders his ballot paper at the 1997 national election - one of Dr Joe Ketan's two favourites (ABC)

NOOSA – Academic Dr Joe Ketan has stated that Papua New Guinea has had only two credible national elections since independence — in 1992 and 1997.

And he’s afraid that, in the election coming up in June, the government will not repeat this slender history of well conducted polls.

The reason: senior politicians have ‘hijacked’ the system, are not providing adequate funds and need to take steps now to ensure an election with integrity.

Dr Ketan was speaking about electoral governance at a seminar in Port Moresby.

He said only two elections had “some semblance of credibility” and that governance “was the worst when it comes to forming a new government”.

There have been nine elections since PNG independence in September 1975.

The first of those ‘credible’ elections in Dr Ketan’s view was in 1992 (an election that had a splendid 81.2% voter turnout) when Paias Wingti won for the People's Democratic Movement.

In the book, ‘The 1992 Papua New Guinea Election: Change and Continuity in Electoral Politics’, editor Yaw Saffu noted that prior to the election, under Sir Rabbie Namaliu’a leadership, the economy had recovered from recession through fiscal discipline, new gold mines and foreign aid.

Observing the election, academic Ron May concluded that it completed the transition from traditional bigman leadership to a new class youthful, Western-educated politicians.

May also noted how “there has been little progress towards an integrative, ideologically-based party system”, an observation that still holds good 30 years later.

The election was held against the background of violence in Bougainville, where an armed secessionist rebellion had closed the Panguna copper mine, on which PNG depended for 40% of its annual foreign exchange earnings.

A survey around the time of the election showed that the main issues were law and order, corruption, unemployment and ‘attitudes’ thought to be holding back the young nation.

May pointed out the “massive 60% re-election failure rate of MPs, 10% more than the preceding average, with all that such high failure rates entail for non-accumulation and non-consolidation of experience in governing, and for the likelihood of extreme self-regarding behaviour on the part of insecure, essentially one-term MPs.”

In 1992, Joe Ketan was a PhD candidate and research fellow at the PNG National Research Institute and conducting field work in Mt Hagen.

May wrote of his observations as “the most relentless exposition of the traditional community vote thesis” in PNG.

Ketan showed that, far from being driven by party platforms and ideological contests, politics at all levels was “organised along traditional structural lines” and national elections were anything but national in character and “really separate electorate competitions”.

The 1992 election, said May, confirmed “that elections in Papua New Guinea continue to be free and fair, at least as far as government control and manipulation are concerned.”

And he reinforced Ketan’s finding that elections “also confirm the continuity of the two fundamental features of PNG elections: the relative unimportance of political parties in the electoral process and the essentially local character of electoral politics.”

The second of Joe Ketan’s two ‘credible’ elections was that of 1997, which was a victory for Bill Skates’ People's National Congress.

The five years leading to that election saw great political instability.

Wingti went out on a vote of no confidence in 1994, Chan came in (defeating Bill Skate) and the civil war on Bougainville continued, defying interventions by PNG’s police and military and steering Chan into secretly recruiting the Sandline mercenaries.

This resulted in PNG’s most serious crisis since independence and it was still burning when the country held its fifth post-independence election in June 1997.

On 22 July 1997, Skate won the ballot for prime minister defeating Somare 71 votes to 35, thus becoming the first prime minister from the Papuan Region.

Chan, the intractable Bougainville war and the Sandline debacle hanging around his neck, lost his seat.

In ‘Maintaining Democracy: the 1997 Elections in Papua New Guinea’, Ron May remarked that “there were a number of disgruntled unsuccessful candidates and isolated instances of post-election violence[but] the overall result was popularly accepted.

“Like all of PNG’s elections, the 1997 election was held on schedule,” he said.

There were 55 women candidates for the 109 seat and two were elected: former Papuan separatist leader, Dame Josephine Abaijah in Milne Bay and Dame Carol Kidu in Port Moresby

So they were Dr Joe Ketan’s two ‘credible’ elections.

And he’s still around to see what 2022, 25 years later, will yield.

“The country’s election processes are intact. However, the system is being hijacked,” he told the seminar in Port Moresby.

“The state-owned enterprises are struggling, many essential services have collapsed, and the security agencies of Royal PNG Constabulary, PNG Defence Force, PNG Correctional Service and National Intelligence Organisation have all lost integrity.

“The security agencies lack discipline, have low morale and have issues with funding.

“We need to take extra steps to ensure that the 2022 election is credible,” he said.

The 2017 election was strongly criticised by most observers who reported many cases of vote rigging, ballot box tampering, bribery, fraudulent counting and violence.

“In 2007 and 2012 it was equally bad with political instability between both former prime ministers Peter O’Neill and Sir Michael Somare,” Ketan said.

“While we look into the future, the government will repeat history.”

Joe Ketan (DWU)
Dr Joe Ketan


Story by Marjorie Finkeo in the PNG Post-Courier; 'The 1992 Papua New Guinea Election: Change and Continuity in Electoral Politics' (Yaw Saffu, editor); 'Maintaining Democracy: the 1997 Elections in Papua New Guinea' (Ron J May and Ray Anere, editors); Election Results from Papua New Guinea website; PNG Elections Database; ANU Pacific Institute Digitisation Project



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