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What went wrong with the 2022 elections?

I’ve spoken to electoral officials who told me about the death threats they received. I’ve heard of candidates kidnapping officials’ family members. If other candidates’ supporters attacked your supporters last election, why not get revenge this time round?

A Chaotic-election-PC-top

| DevPolicy Blog

CANBERRA - The dust is still swirling, far from settled, and already people are calling the 2022 elections the worst in Papua New Guinea’s history.

Is that correct? I don’t know – the 2002 and 2017 elections provide stiff competition. And in some ways, 2022 hasn’t been as bad as I feared.

The PNG Electoral Commission abandoned what would have been a disastrous decision to count first preference votes at polling stations, and coped with the last minute redistricting curveball parliament threw its way.

It’s too soon for proper comparisons, but the violence may end up being less than in 2017.

And all over PNG people did something that they rarely get credit for: they organised, or participated in, an election in a poor and poorly governed state.

In much of the country, logistics teams, polling officials and counting officials did their job, despite the frustrations and danger.

The national electoral commission managed to oversee all this, more or less. It’s something.

And yet, the elections have still been much worse than the people of PNG deserve.

There has been violence, there have been murders – no one should die in an election.

A vehicles afireMany aspiring voters weren’t able to vote safely. The common roll was simultaneously antiquated, dilapidated and manipulated.

Problems like the hijacking of ballot boxes, and attacks on counting centres, occurred in parts of the country that previously haven’t suffered from them.

And troubles in traditional hotspots were shocking. Petitions alleging electoral malfeasance will clog PNG’s courts for years.

PNG’s democracy can’t continue this way.

Problems are spreading. Cynicism about the electoral process is on the rise. If electoral violence becomes normalised in more and more electorates, it will become next to impossible to control and harder still to reverse.

Why has this happened? Although claims of grand electoral conspiracies involving the PNG Electoral Commission are commonplace on the internet, as UPNG academic Maholopa Laveil has pointed out, there’s no good evidence they are true.

The actual explanation for PNG’s electoral woes is more prosaic, and also probably harder to address. It stems from the country’s political economy, and the voter-politician relationship.

When they are free to choose who to vote for, most voters in PNG vote for candidates who they think will help them, their family or their community directly. They don’t vote on national issues or policies.

I’ve explained elsewhere why this is a perfectly sensible way to vote. But it’s also problematic: it incentivises members of parliament to focus on getting resources directly to their supporters.

At the same time it provides MPs no political reason to worry about governing well in the interests of the country as a whole.

And so national issues are neglected. MPs mostly have no electoral reason to focus on them.

For the five years they are in power, MPs worry about wiggling their way into (electorally advantageous) ministerial roles and making sure constituency funds keep flowing.

Prime ministers worry about holding together governing coalitions.

Ministers rarely master their portfolios: they’re too busy carefully manoeuvring around the PM.

Senior politicians only pay attention to national issues when they become too critical to ignore.

From rundown roads to ramshackle health clinics, a suite of woes trails in the wake of this dynamic.

Elections are a national issue, so they’re neglected until they can’t be ignored. Electoral quality is another casualty.

Well-run elections take a lot of planning and ongoing preparation throughout the so-called electoral cycle.

But in PNG, politicians don’t think about, or spend money on, electoral quality until the last minute, and then it’s too late.

That explains the (effectively useless) state of PNG’s common roll: rolls take a long time, and require money, to prepare and validate in a country like PNG.

The fact that PNG’s politicians know – or care – so little about electoral quality also explains other decisions, such as the last minute creation of seven new electorates just before the 2022 election.

No one who had thought carefully about elections would have inflicted this on an already stretched electoral commission.

But PNG’s parliament voted for it.

With national neglect and a weak national electoral commission, electoral quality in PNG largely comes down to provincial electoral commissions and local communities.

In much of the country they are able to run elections well either because provincial institutions function without assistance from national ones, or because community social capital helps.

Elsewhere, however, political strongmen (always men) are able to buy or coerce provincial and local officials to do their bidding.

I’ve spoken to electoral officials who told me about the death threats they received. I’ve heard of candidates kidnapping officials’ family members in the lead-up to elections.

Locally, electoral norms also have a major influence on how elections are run: if other candidates are coercing voters in their villages, why not do it yourself?

If other candidates’ supporters attacked your supporters last election, why not get revenge this time round?

A headlineNorms make the disastrous election of 2022 all the more worrying.

The more cynical and disillusioned voters feel now, the worse behaviour is likely to be in 2027.

The increasing spread of problems in 2022 means there will be more parts of the country prone to trouble five years from now.

PNG’s democracy can’t withstand this forever. Something has to be done.


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Harry Topham

What a strange world we live in.

Over the ditch in the good old US of A we have democracy under threat of being supplanted by opportunists who have taken advantage of the populations apathy.

Less than half the country’s population decided not vote in their presidential election while those hell bent on supplanting the fundamentals of true democracy try to introduce their own brand of self interest.

Meanwhile in far off PNG we have a population hell bent in reintroducing tribalism over voting and bending the rules of fairness by graft, corruption and violence to achieve their own self interest.

Maybe Nicholas Monsarrat was right when he put pen to paper all those years ago? What a mess.

Paul Oates

I've been banging on about a the benefits of a bicameral system for years, as you know Phil. The problem with any worthwhile improvement is that it won't be favoured by those who are quite happy with the status quo.

Why change, when what currently works for the few against the many?

The potential for an ongoing electoral process would however allow a limited and more effective electoral process to constantly reflect the current state of public opinion.

Rats! That has just doomed that idea to failure.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You might be on to something there Stephen.

Having an upper house in the national parliament, a senate in effect, might be an opening for women if it is run along the same lines as the Australian National senate.

Each province could have a set number of senate seats, depending on its population, and they would be voted on from a candicacy pool of men and women largely unaligned or at least divorced from local tribal affinities.

If any country needed a second house to review the decisions of its politicians it's PNG.

Paul Oates

That last suggestion Stephen, is the best idea I've heard in along while.

Stephen Charteris

I believe Terence has made some pertinent observations. He has picked out a number of factors that are increasingly impacting the safe and orderly conduct of elections. I would add a couple more to the mix.

While he has pointed out the tendency of elected members to focus on their supporters, I would suggest the issue is more granular. Specifically, candidates focus upon their clan members and those related or useful to them in some way.

The golden rule from the perspective of almost any voter goes something like, if a candidate is not related to me in some way, then I have no reason to trust them.

And thus, the socio, political, economic consequences roll along.

There is another elephant in the room. Traditionally men and women play different roles in society and fundamentally this is why it is unlikely any significant changes to the gender ratio of parliaments will occur this millennium – unless you subscribe to the view that culture can be overridden. Good luck with that.

So as Terence points out - “something has to be done”.

It is my view that for substantive change to take place women must be equally represented at every level of government just as they are in a village context.

Traditionally women exercise power through their own groups especially on matters such as food security, children’s health and education. Since climate and transport infrastructure are a cross cutting issues, they will have clear views on those as well.

In matrilineal settings women can exercise total authority over the distribution and use of land. There is no more powerful an influence than that.

Hence, I envisage a bicameral system that reflects those values. Where each level of representative government has an upper chamber comprised of women with the power to reject legislation or decisions they believe do not represent the best interests of the nation, province, district, local level government or ward, especially in relation to them and their children.

This even begs the question of whether men and women should vote for separate houses as they would in a traditional context.

Consideration also needs to be given to holding rolling elections across all 118 representative regions throughout a five-year term. That might give the Electoral Commission time to focus its resources on a limited number of districts each month.

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