| DevPolicy Blog
WAIGANI - Papua New Guinea’s elections are often dangerous affairs.
In the past, elections have been accompanied by spikes in violence between rival groups, resulting in injury and death. In some areas fraud is rife, and voters face significant intimidation.
The upcoming 2022 national elections will again present significant challenges for the country’s security forces. How are they likely to respond?
According to PNG Police Minister William Onguglo, security operation plans for the election have been finalised. The Defence Force, Correctional Services and Constabulary are ready.
Mr Onguglois determined to ensure that the levels of election-related violence seen in 2017 do not re-occur.
However, in reality PNG’s security forces are ill-prepared for the upcoming elections. This is particularly the case for the nation’s police force.
While the RPNGC will likely be at the forefront of responding to security challenges, time again they have been found to be ill-equipped to carry out their mandate to keep citizens and property safe.
Recent analysis has found that the police face a recurrent funding gap of K126 million per annum, and require an additional one-off injection of around K3.9 billion to ensure the RPNGC can deliver its service mandate.
Such funding constraints and lack of personnel have been common problems for the country’s security forces, and will likely affect their level of performance during the election period.
In addition, Correctional Services Commissioner Stephen Pokanis has indicated his department’s budget of K11.6 million is not enough to buy the required amount of firearms and body armour for officers.
In the 2017 elections, observers noted that guns and bush knives were prevalent at many Highlands polling stations. Gun violence was directly observed in Hela and Chimbu provinces.
An election observation report compiled by the Australian National University, found firearms were more prevalent in 2017 than at the previous two national elections.
In response to concerns about gun violence, in the May parliamentary sitting prime minister James Marape tabled the Firearms Amendment Bill 2022, which was unanimously supported by all MPs.
Under the legislation, those found to be in unlawful possession of or manufacturing firearms face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Marape reminded candidates and their supporters to be mindful of the penalties of the tougher firearm laws and urged them not to repeat the gun-related violence that marred the 2017 elections.
Marape has also directed police to monitor 18 security ‘hotspots’ that are at high risk of firearm violence.
While these are steps in the right direction, it is uncertain how much difference they will make to the threat guns will pose to this election.
Legislation passed in 2018 introducing penalties for the use of illegal or misuse of legal weapons arguably did little to curb gun violence.
This is because of the number of guns already in the country and the difficulties involved in reducing them.
It is believed there are over 50,000 illegal firearms in PNG, either manufactured, smuggled, or traded by gangs or tribal groups.
Recent gun-related violence and killings in parts of PNG suggest that firearms still pose a threat to free, fair and safe elections.
There are also growing concerns about the politicisation of the nation’s security forces.
In 2021, lawyer Laken Lepatu Aigilo accused Governor Peter Ipatas of directing the police to assault, kidnap and threaten to kill him.
Politicians in other areas have expressed concerns about police impartiality. Such accusations are likely to spike during this election.
In 2017, more than half of the ANU observer teams reported that police harassed scrutineers, local observers, counting officials and the public.
With elections just a few weeks away, Police Commissioner Manning has again called on the security forces to remain neutral and not favour candidates or politicians. This will be difficult to achieve.
The 2022 elections are also likely be tougher for security forces because of problems presented by Covid-19. PNG’s vaccination rates are extremely low – around 3% of the population are fully vaccinated.
During elections people will gather for political rallies and congregate at polling stations with little regard for Covid protocols, which could increase transmission across the country.
Recent by-elections in Goroka and Moresby North-West have shown the difficulties involved in enforcing Covid safety regulations.
PNG’s security forces face significant challenges in trying to secure the 2022 election.
While security failures are magnified during elections, we need ongoing efforts to improve security in PNG beyond the election cycle.
This includes better equipping and funding of security forces, effectively enforcing new laws to reduce gun-related violence, and mitigating political interference in PNG’s security forces.
Brave and dedicated men and women will do their best to secure the 2022 elections. However, given the magnitude of the challenges, it might be a case of too little too late.
Okole Midelit is a teaching fellow in political science in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Papua New Guinea. The views are those of the author only