Australia cannot ignore PNG election violence
30 July 2022
For years Australia has had a mute response to these problems, especially the extent of weaponry that has spread through the country that now threatens the viability of the state. Politicians arm their supporters - Michael Main (Twitter)
MIRANDA FORSYTH & GORDON PEAKE
| Guardian Australia
CANBERRA - Elections in Papua New Guinea are notoriously volatile and dangerous.
But this year’s elections have involved violence, intimidation, corruption as well as administrative ineptitude on what looks like an exceptional scale.
The Commonwealth observer team on the ground has called for an urgent review of the electoral process, noting almost half of eligible voters may have been disenfranchised.
Yet the Australian government’s response – like the international community’s as a whole – has been muted, just as it was during the last elections in 2017.
The dominant narrative is that this wildfire of violence is something anomalous, that things will return to normal soon, and the business of government will restart. But is this a lie we have for too long chosen to believe?
The past few weeks have seen wildfires of election-related violence throughout parts of the country.
Counting centres at two districts in Morobe Province, have been attacked. Voters in East Sepik and Hela provinces have destroyed ballot boxes and set fire to ballot papers.
In Enga Province, 18 people were killed by gunmen during voting.
Accounts of killings and arson are in addition to the widespread reports of electoral chaos, of money politics, of ballot boxes being ‘highjacked’ by candidates and their supporters, and of scrutineers being harassed and hindered in doing their jobs.
Speaking at a public forum on Thursday, Dame Meg Taylor, a senior PNG leader, recounted a story of women in a village in the Highlands who got up early to vote, waiting patiently at polling booths hours before the officials arrive.
They went early so as to be able to vote safely and without intimidation of the crowds, but even these precautions failed as they were chased away by a group of armed young men.
The country’s political leaders simply do not appear to be taking this seriously.
James Marape, the country’s caretaker prime minister, held a press conference earlier in the week where he referred to ‘disturbances’ and ‘unrest’, instead of acknowledging what it was – uncontrolled rioting, wanton violence, reports of bodies being dumped, photos circulated of rape victims, vehicles being attacked by crowds of teenagers, and so forth.
In a statement released by the PM’s office, Marape said he was “on top of these issues”.
There is deep distress being voiced by Papua New Guinean citizens about what this violence is revealing about the state of democracy and the rise of tribalism and patriarchy in their country.
Some are concluding that a tipping point has been reached, a point of violence and insecurity that was unthinkable when the country first celebrated its independence almost 50 years ago.
The violence associated with these elections is deeply implicated with the country’s institutions of governance.
Last week the commissioner of police observed that it was the candidates themselves who were responsible for instigating electoral-related violence in Enga.
He observed that it is “sickening” that the violence is stemming from highly educated members of the community.
We write these sentences with sorrow.
We are Australians with a long-term interest in PNG.
We have enormous respect for Melanesian approaches to governance.
We have written about the resilience of Melanesian social structures to overcome the deficiencies of its frequently hollowed-out and sluggish state institutions.
In our own work, we have highlighted the innovative and Herculean ways in which struggling bureaucrats and administrators in public institutions keep on going despite mounting resource constraints.
But we also know that what is going on is a manifestation of problems that have been hiding in plain sight.
This violence is the result of the failures of multiple systems of governance over multiple years to adequately provide basic services and administration.
The events of the last weeks have forced us to ask uncomfortable questions: have PNG’s institutions of governance been so eroded, and so lost people’s trust and respect, that people feel they have no option but to take matters into their own hands?
Has it got to the point where losing candidates will send their supporters out to occasion further wrack and ruin? What does this say about the future for democracy in PNG?
There is a danger that the political violence will be used by new leaders to justify a more oppressive response from the state, giving rise to dangerous cycles of escalation. This must be resisted.
It is critical that Australian leaders engage seriously with the events of the past few weeks, and speak frankly about them to whichever new leader emerges.
The true levels of disenfranchisement of the population should not continue to be ignored. A new electoral system is urgently required.
This must be one that both accounts for the entire population – the last census was done in 2011 – and that builds in a guaranteed place for women in the political system.
Many other changes are required to rebuild or re-craft broken systems of education, health and justice that have slowly been withering away.
This will be a long process, but there is a very great risk that it will not even be started unless courageous leaders from both inside and outside PNG acknowledge the magnitude of what is currently unravelling.
MIRANDA FORSYTH IS A PROFESSOR IN THE SCHOOL OF REGULATION AND GLOBAL GOVERNANCE IN THE COLLEGE OF ASIA & THE PACIFIC AT THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY. GORDON PEAKE IS AN AFFILIATE AT THE CENTRE FOR AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND AND PACIFIC STUDIES AT GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle “Man is a political animal who can work towards his highest good only as a member of a society. Man is continuously searching for an ideal society to live in."
Abraham Lincoln, one of America's greatest presidents, referred to democracy as “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Papua New Guinea accepted this concept and adopted it into our Constitution.
Lincoln further stressed that “elections belong to the people” and that people must make their own free choice to elect good leaders, who should aspire to and respect the values of the common people.
These days, however, we are continuously shifting away from the real meaning of democracy.
Part of that shift involves the disruption and destruction of free voting that threatens democratic government.
"When you want my wife or my daughter I can give them to you," a former member of parliament told me. "But when you want my power, I will never give it to you. Even if I lose, I will make my way in."
The neoliberal push is for a political system with elements of greed, selfishness, corruption, abuse of power, control, intimidation, manipulation and disrespect for free and fair elections.
This kind of behaviour erodes good governance and it destroys democracy.
The current political situation in PNG - not only the disrupted election process but the formation of government without an active opposition - is a real threat to the survival of democracy in our country.
Political parties and members of the 11th parliament since independence do not seem to be conscious that a government without a strong opposition is a real threat to democracy. Or if they are conscious, they do not care.
They should also be aware that what they are doing is increasingly providing justification for a future military intervention as has happened in Fiji and many African countries.
What is occurring now really frustrates the people’s confidence in a government should be providing appropriate answers to growing socio-economic problems - including unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment - and the related law and order problems.
I witnessed many cases of electoral laws being violated during each of the five periods of the 2022 election - pre-campaign, campaign, polling, vote counting and the declaration of winners.
This unlawful behaviour undermined a democratic, legitimate and lawful election. In many places in PNG, there was no free and fair voting in 2022.
Indeed, this was the worst election ever, one in which polling was controlled and manipulated by deviant supporters of desperate candidates.
I have observed people - as individuals or in groups - going from one candidate to another candidate to buy votes. This behaviour is no longer secretive.
Vote buying in the form of cash, pigs and other food is the norm in contemporary PNG politics, especially in the Highlands.
No one is complaining because for candidates to buy votes is now seen as normal.
Despite numerous educational awareness and voter education programs conducted by government agencies, NGOs and churches, PNG hasn’t solved the problems of corruption noted in previous elections.
In fact, this election was much worse. It showed we have no respect for individual voting rights nor for gender-inclusive and disability-inclusive voting.
Individual voting rights have been replaced by authoritarian or dictatorial decisions that control voters and enable multiple voting for one or two selected candidates.
In a communal society, individual rights have been suppressed and subject to mob rule.
Some candidates were so desperate to be elected, they went to extremes: using deviant youths to force people to vote for them, stealing ballot papers and engaging in multiple voting.
Politicians used youths for their own gain. Drug lords and deviant youths controlled voting places.
The ignorant sold their freedom for just a buck. Later they will regret their actions.
Another emerging norm is that some candidates claim it is their birthright to mark all ballot papers distributed in their ward areas.
If there were two or three candidates from the same ward, they would divide the ballot papers between them, marking second and third preferences to each other.
Corruption in PNG is an epidemic that now affects every part of government, including elections.
Elections in PNG are very expensive and money influences people to vote for the wrong leaders.
Some candidates, especially incumbent MPs, dish out free money to supporters, spending millions of kina from government allocations that are provided with that are meant to build schools and aid posts or to build and maintain roads.
During the campaign, polling and counting periods, businesses and other economic activities were interrupted. Government offices did not operate normally.
Government funds were diverted to election-related activities leading to systematic abuse.
In my observation, most public servants were innocent of this corruption which denied the delivery of services to the people.
Operational government bank accounts were closed by financial institutions in the name of transparency.
The consequences of this were great: the innocent population seeing hospitals and health centres without vital medicines and schools closed.
All our financial and electoral systems have been corrupted to favour certain politicians.
"Even if I lose, I will make my way in."
Posted by: Philip Kai Morre | 11 August 2022 at 10:19 PM
Therein lies the answer to the conundrum of what constitutes a responsible and accountable government.
It took centuries to establish reasonable answers to that problem in Europe and it looks like even those answers are only as good as those who now have the power to control those who are elected.
In the case of PNG, a totally foreign system of control was imposed very quickly, in historical terms, across the Eastern half on the island. The power to enforce that system was then set up and enforced by a few hundred men and their loyal police.
It’s taken 50 years for that system of control to totally fall apart because it never evolved as a home-grown system. It was imposed by those who basically understood what had to be done and had the power to make it work.
It was very clear from the outset that those who knew or cared little about the local conditions and aspirations, insisted on imposing a so called modern parliamentary system on PNG.
That system would never work due to powerful culture clashes and tribal ethnicities and loyalties. Yet no one at the time wanted to know.
Prior to 1975, the previous system of control only worked while it was a perceived as independent. It also only worked while there were no huge problems over land, wealth, huge population growth and lack of available and meaningful employment that confront PNG today. In addition, external factors have now also impacted on who gets what and how from the available resources?
The problem is really a dichotomy of perception. There is the current facade of power set up using names and terminologies that have been inherited from elsewhere and don’t really convey what they were created to represent. That is the first misnomer.
Parliamentary rule and ministerial responsibility are nebulous terms that won’t ever translate to the local customs and cultural laws a rural villager has to conform to.
The second is that it takes centuries to ameliorate the impacts of inter-tribal conflicts and quite often, it is never eradicated. Just look at the UK today and even Australia, at the time of origin football. That is essentially part of the human DNA that has never been eradicated.
The answer to your query, John, is therefore that there’s not a lot Australia can do except postulate and prevaricate and possibly send unarmed police or troops as a token of concern.
There are still some of those ‘lapuns’ (oldtimers) around who know what to do and how to do it. However, they were never and will never be listened to by those who don’t want to know. They will simply fade away into the mists of forgotten human history. ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see.'
Meanwhile today’s PNG people wonder why they were never really asked what system they would like to live under. No one dared explain to the people at the time that there were and still are alternatives. Many people at the village level pleaded for a more gradual transfer of power but those in the UN and Canberra turned a deaf ear.
The situation was summed up by the European politicians who said: “Everyone knows what to do but can’t work out how to get re-elected after they do it."
Posted by: Paul Oates | 31 July 2022 at 03:52 PM
My untutored observation is that the Westminster style of competitive elections pits clan against clan, wantok against wantok, and winning is seen as involving losing to that other mob and dominance.
What form any alternative process should be to achieve effective national governance is beyond my cultural awareness.
John raises a fair question - does there exist a better electoral process? But the lack of effective national leadership would probably subvert even the best of systems - KJ
Posted by: John Beswick | 31 July 2022 at 01:58 PM
If ever there was an excuse for an army coup to get a country back on a better track surely what the world has seen in PNG is such.
I would suggest that in most 3rd world nations it would have already happened.
Yet perhaps luckily PNG's Defence Force is made up of men and women recruited from all over the nation who lack the will to unite for such a takeover of government.
Secondly there always seemed to me to be what I now call an Islamic-style response to terrible events epitomised with the saying: 'Inshallah'! Or God wills it.
Yet it was present long before the Christian missos arrived. Over my years in PNG I slowly began to listen and observe and noted that the peasant class knew its place in the community male dominated hierarchy.
There is the tale of the NW Lavongai 'bigman' who was alleged to have a hundred wives and could in just a few days develop a new huge garden or plantation of coconuts with a large labour force from his women's clans.
There was once a former, very mediocre, councillor that I once knew who now lived upriver away from the main village.
The people had asked me to help buy back their alienated plantation land from its Catholic Mission owners.
The men and women who were day workers on the plantation promised to pay a little every fortnight into a new bank account to which I and two villagers would be the required signatories.
We did this for several months until one day a few villagers came to see me. They told me that the old guy up the river was upset by what we had started.
The outcome was despite the village being 100% in favour of the scheme we had to repay all the money so far saved. That was the end of that attempt to buy back their land.
Incidentally one Sunday morning the same 'bigman' sent a message to the local United Church congregation.
“I know how you all have been so happy with the abundance of talai fish that I have provided for you to catch just on the beach for the past week.
Yet none of you have thought to thank me for what I have provided for you. So tomorrow the fish will not return for you to grab!”
He was right they didn't reappear! Local inherited knowledge of a zoological event but it certainly enhanced his status in the community.
Or the 'short-pillow' MP who ordered my ten workers not to receive any overtime from their working longer hours than the normal 40 per week.
One afternoon after work he lined up the healthy, strong and taller men and in his local language frightened them into accepting his order which privately I had told him was illegal for me to enforce. I was told in no ambiguous terms what would happen if I disobeyed him.
So it seems average PNG citizens accept that they are very low in the pecking order of their communities and should accept it as just normal subsistence living.
I smile when I have seen videos or heard reports of many hundreds of warriors fighting furiously but then hear that only one or two of them have lost their lives.
It seems to be what Hitler called the 'untermensch' (inferiors) posturing almost Hollywood-like for their clan leaders to know 'Yes we are fighting for you!' Daily I see TV reports of far more killed in such fighting in other world trouble spots.
In 1997 almost a coup by Major General Singirok helped stop the Sandline mercenary saga but then he too was found out as not being all he had appeared to be to his grateful public in a 2000 Inquiry.
Perhaps all I am doing is describing what is summed up in Pidgin, “Bai yumi tok wanem? Ples daun!” That is, “What's to say? It's what is expected!”
Or, the phrase of ultimate futility 'Samting nating!”
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 30 July 2022 at 08:36 PM