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PNG’s election: Death, arson & destruction

Elections need to proper planning and management. But this election has repeated previous experience, with 50 known deaths, arson, destruction of property and 3,000 people displaced from their homes

Houses burn in Enga Province
Houses burn in Enga Province

| The Interpreter | Lowy Institute

PORT MORESBY - Violence is a mainstay of Papua New Guinea’s elections.

As I write this article, tensions are high in the capital Port Moresby. Reports of machete wielding men slashing innocent bystanders along the city’s main roads and fears of retaliation fill my social media feed.

Schools and business houses have closed, with many residents staying indoors.

PNG will continue counting through to August, as the return of writs initially scheduled for 29 July has been postponed to 12 August.

By law, three-quarters of all seats are required to have concluded counting by the return of writs, with winners declared. So far, 26 of the 118 seats have declared winners.

To secure this election, 10,280 security personnel were deployed. This is lower than the 10,500 security personnel deployed in 2017, despite the PNG Electoral Commission projecting 6.2 million voters (800,000 more than in 2017), as well as the creation of seven new electorates.

Fewer security personnel stretched to cover more voters and seat elections has led to the polling schedule being spread out over two weeks, with different provinces scheduled for different days (one day for the problematic Highlands provinces), so that security could move between.

Of the 18 election hotspots for violence that were identified and planned to receive more security, Komo-Magarima in Hela Province, Kompiam-Ambum, Porgera, Wapenamanda, and Kandep in Enga Province, and National Capital District have experienced spates of violence.

Although not identified as an election hotspot, ballot boxes were also destroyed in the Morobe districts of Markham and Kabwum.

The first election related death occurred in early May in Western Highlands, when an election officer was shot.

This followed a delay in the publication of a list of election officers appointed, and led to false lists being circulated, shortened time available for queries by the general public, and violence between rival candidates over rumoured appointments.

Throughout June and July, most of the violence occurred in the provinces of Enga, Hela, Southern Highlands, and Western Highlands.

There were reports of the use of shotguns and military grade weapons, consistent with an estimate of illegal firearms in PNG numbering more than 50,000.

The violence in Enga has resulted in more than 3,000 people being displaced, according to the United Nations.

In addition to destroyed ballot boxes, violence has included destruction of schools, houses, food gardens and livestock, as well as government buildings.

A helicopter was shot at in Enga. Key bridges and roads have been damaged, with a three-meter wide trench dug through the road connecting Porgera to the Wabag town of Enga to obstruct election and security officers.

Candidates and their supporters, if they are unhappy with how the polling and counting is handled, often resort to violence and in many places security resources have been overwhelmed.

Violence seems to be most severe during polling, counting, and when results are declared.

During the campaign period this year 28 deaths were reported, which is much lower than the 70 deaths during the 2017 campaign period (of a total of 204 deaths spanning the election).

The toll for this year stands at under 50 deaths, although more are expected as winners are declared.

One reason for the relatively lower number of deaths before polling is that since the Limited Preferential Voting system was introduced in 2007, candidates have campaigned strategically by collaborating with other candidates to seek voters second and third preference votes.

Preferential voting has not eliminated violence, however. Candidates and their supporters, if they are unhappy with how the polling and counting is handled, often resort to violence and in many places security resources have been overwhelmed.

Another problem is that the primary focus for security is the protection of ballot boxes.

Security is heightened when ballot boxes arrive at polling booths for voting, and again when they are transported to centralised counting locations in each province (usually a nearby school or government building).

Once counting concludes and a winner is declared, security is reduced, leaving disgruntled candidates and their supporters.

Given an average of 31 candidates per seat in this election, tensions can be high after elections conclude and violence often ensues.

Much of the violence would have been avoided had the elections been properly planned for and administered. Although there are claims that the ruling party, Pangu, rigged the election, there is little evidence to support this.

Ballot papers litter the ground in Port Moresby
Voting papers litter the ground in Port Moresby after a raid on ballot boxes

Election fraud usually occurs at individual polling stations, and during counting, as these processes are overseen by provincial electoral commissions and local electoral officials, which the national electoral commission has limited influence over.

For dissatisfied candidates, the legal process to challenge results is to lodge a petition with the court of disputed returns. In 2017, 71 results were petitioned, and only three resulted in recounts ordered by the courts.

This election has repeated the experience of previous elections, with deaths, arson attacks, destruction of property and infrastructure, and people displaced from their homes.

Beyond violence, there is little effective legal recourse for dissatisfied candidates, and has left many Papua New Guineans disillusioned with the democratic process.

For the incoming government, reforming the election process must be high in its list of priorities to ensure the 2027 elections do not suffer the same fate.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Yet again the Papua New Guinea National Election has turned into a spectacle of mindless violence and corruption.

There are still days to go before all the writs are in and there are likely to be many more deaths and injuries before it is over.

Clearly, something has to be done about it before the next general election in 2027.

Despite all its problems Papua New Guinea is still a democracy, so elections cannot be banned.

The nature of its terrain and widespread and often isolated villages makes the provision of extra security arrangements involving the police and the army during elections largely ineffective, particularly in the highlands, where most of the lawlessness occurs.

Perhaps, instead of a heavy hand a soft touch is required.

This could begin with a frank assessment of why so many candidates stand for election and what motivates them.

I think it is generally acknowledged that many of these candidates are driven by the prospect of money and power.

Money in the form of high wages and the opportunities for graft and corruption and power in a form that can be used for nefarious purposes.

Perhaps that is a good place to start.

True leadership has several defining factors, not least are humility, ethical behaviour and, most importantly, the ability to place the welfare of those being led or represented over and above personal ambition.

If you look up leadership qualities on the internet all you’ll get is a barrage of success and profit orientated managerialism hoo-ha that is mostly meaningless hype.

That’s not the sort of leadership that is required in Papua New Guinean politics. What I'm talking about here is real leadership.

So what say the money element is taken out of the equation by reducing politician’s salaries to a sensible level? On a par with school principals perhaps?

Then curtail the opportunities for graft and corruption by introducing a special and independent public advocate with real teeth to investigate and prosecute incidents of dodgy under the table deals by politicians.

Make it law that anyone convicted of such offences can never run for public office again, both in the parliament and the public service.

Perhaps introduce legislation that specifically bans nepotism, particularly of the wantok kind?

We all know there are sneaky politicians who will find a way around these kinds of measures but no system is ever perfect.

Maybe when enough of these lowlifes are imprisoned their shonky mates might get the message.

What I'm talking about here, of course, not only dealing with electoral motives but changing the very nature of the kind of candidate who will run for parliament.

Kicking out the bad guys and making way for the good guys.

All this, of course, hinges on the courage of the parliament to pass such measures. This is where it falls down.

Perhaps a great theme for the 2027 election could be electing honest and humble politicians.

If that were even possible it might go a long way to at least saving the lives or preventing injuries to many people and preventing the senseless damage to property we are seeing at the moment.

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