Election PNG: Far from founding fathers vision
24 December 2022
GOROKA - Election season in Papua New Guinea is usually a very tumultuous time for all involved.
Since independence elections have evolved as a kind of modern day warfare fought between various tribes across a nation of more than 800 language groups.
Over the course of time, this Western process of appointing leaders has been modified to align with elements of Melanesian culture.
And lately it has been hijacked to suit and validate modern Melanesian bigman status.
In August this year our nation witnessed the worst election in its 47 year history.
The overt disregard of the electoral process and the existence of rampant corruption, violence and election related deaths have been unprecedented.
This has been perpetrated by powerful men and groups within our society to be favourable to their insatiable appetite for money and power.
In this article, I will try to convey what I’ve seen and experienced as the story of a candidate in the part of the Highlands I’m from.
And hopefully this will give you a glimpse of what is behind the candidate and why there’s so much riding on a candidate come the election season.
A side note: I refer to candidates in this article is as men, as they are what much of our nation’s history has revolved around.
Close to election period, there is often a lot of chatter in the villages about who will be the likely candidate to carry this coveted shield of leadership for the tribe.
Each open electorate is a battlefield for the tribes. Each tribe feels the need to present a warrior, and, depending on internal tribal politics, candidates nominate themselves.
There is usually a gathering held in the village to ask the prominent men who will contest, at which time a candidate is finalised and the allegiance of the village and surrounding community is confirmed.
The election season begins about two years before the national elections when awareness programs begin for intending candidates.
The candidate starts sponsoring community events or sports teams in local competitions.
Donating uniforms to sporting clubs is usually to rally the support of youths from 12 years old and upwards since team sports is a place where tribal mentality is affirmed.
Conversations ensue about the hanmak, who should raise his hand to carry the burden of community affairs by spending more of his personal finances or using his position of employment to benefit people in the community or district in times of great need.
These times of great need are tied in with customary obligations surrounding death, marriage, compensation and enabling younger tribespeople to gain employment.
However candidates’ ability to commit resources doesn’t mean they provide the wisest or most sensible leadership.
Too many times we’ve seen over-resourced people bulldoze individual agendas ahead of the communal good and by doing that disrupt community.
However, great or small the hanmak may be, the quintessential gist of this person is to have achieved standing in the community or manifest material worth.
I once heard a person say that all a potential candidate needs to do is buy a new LandCruiser to gain the attention of his community as a valid candidate.
In some people’s minds the ownership of a LandCruiser validates a person’s seat at the table of potential leaders.
Like our ancestors who were shown shiny objects by expatriate explorers and in their ignorance gave away huge tracts of land.
It seems the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree even in this golden age of information.
In Melanesia, the leader must possess a certain level of extroversion and charisma that will relate to people.
People want leaders who initiate personal conversations with them, who will acknowledge their tribes place in the world.
I once heard of a great leader who, when he travels into remote places, for context in his conversation will call out sacred places and streams.
For average people who still have primal attachment to their land, this is the ultimate compliment.
People aren’t sold on your policies as much as identifying with the candidate, and that means putting yourself out there to learn and interact with people.
An introvert is the antithesis to the Melanesian idea of a leader.
Elections are also times where the ‘crazies’ come out with fantastical ideas about how our country should go.
As far as policies go, pragmatic ideas of basic service delivery in health, education and law and order are mediocre compared to the elaborate schemes these candidates conjure.
The literacy rate in PNG is low, so often intending candidates will use people’s ignorance to invoke elaborate ideas with no practical application.
For instance, there was once a candidate heading a party who promised that, if his party won a majority in parliament, it would build freeways connecting all the New Guinea islands.
More recently I heard a candidate say he had no policy as politicians lie, he will only come up with policy when he becomes an MP.
Then there is the undeniable familial connection which is a core identity of Melanesians.
This network goes back generations and, like a spider’s web, spreads across many tribes and villages.
An intending candidate reconnects these intricate sleeping cells of relatives (usually by marriage of a sister, aunt, niece, grand aunt, cousin etc into another clan or village).
The extended family based on his wife serves as a cell from which supporters actively campaign within their communities to garner support from in-laws and the community.
The supporters are equipped with standard talking points about the candidate’s abilities and vision.
Food and money are dished out to newly converted supporters and a campaign haus erected, serving as the nerve centre for the candidate.
This is a place where supporters gather during the campaign season, where news and strategies are discussed.
In the evenings, coffee, tea and betel nut (buai) are served to supporters. Sometimes the candidate will chip, in but rarely.
The ultimate mark of respect by supporters is the slaughter of pigs for the intending candidate.
This can become very costly. But since she has put her and her family out there in support of her relative, the family will slaughter an animal - usually a pig or goat - to distribute to the community.
This action implies that should their candidate win, they through her will be the contact point to the new MP.
The slaughter of animals is a significant cultural cue signifying support.
Candidates have been known to invoke supporters through marriage as well. Some men have multiple partners across villages or force relatives to marry across the district so it’s easier to garner reliable support through his in-laws.
However, should the candidate lose, he has to return the favour once extended in the election either in finance or resources to the supporter such as school fees or cultural obligations that the supporter might face.
So the losing candidate can end up facing considerable financial pressure.
Not all supporters cash in on this favour from the losing candidate, however repayment of contributions become the proverbial millstone around his neck.
This may become the primary source of stress on candidates’ lives post-election, and can eventuate in death. Many candidates have died after elections.
For us, the candidate doesn’t have to be a person qualified to legislate policies.
It’s about being the person who will uphold Melanesian practices in a western system.
It’s about compensating the candidate and his ardent supporters for years of hard work building relationships and spending resources from the public purse.
It really is about take back and restoring the pride of his people and creating pathways for his people in clan and tribal politics.
Today the process of electing leaders in modern Melanesian society has morphed into something that I’m sure is a far cry from what Papua New Guinea’s founding fathers aspired for us.
A display inside Canberra's Old Parliament House provides details from the 2019 Democracy Index of 169 countries and their style of government.
There are only 22 nations (including Australia), that are fully democratic and covering only 5.7% of the world’s population.
I wonder what the so called 'Founding Fathers' would say now if they were asked? Given these well meaning individuals included Duncan Kerr (helped write the PNG Constitution) Kerr and Gough Whitlam (It was I, comrade, who liberated Papua New Guinea), the response would likely be; 'Well, that's what they wanted!'
In fact very few wanted the rapid exit of accountable government that transpired after Independence, except of course, those who stood to personally gain.
No matter how many times the imbroglio is dissected, the results speak for themselves.
You can't manage a problem from distant location. The British Commander (in his sixties) at the Dardanelles supposedly managed the campaign from inside a battleship far out to sea.
The Turkish Commander (in his thirties), managed his nation's defence from the front lines. QED. Or as the Yanks are prone to say: 'Go figure!'.
Knowing about a problem doesn't mean knowing how to fix it. Many have known about the problem for decades but are continually not listened to by those who think they know better or feel threatened by it being revealed they do not.
The really stubborn and intransigent issue is that those who are the problem either can't recognise the symptoms or at least, don't want to. The current situation suits them just fine.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 24 December 2022 at 11:45 AM
And I suggest this is also spreading to the rest of PNG not just in the Highlands.
And the greatest enemy of the citizens of PNG is the 'modern Melanesian bigman status'.
Any humble MP will almost immediately be set upon by way of temptation by offers of freebies. Been watching it since the recent election.
Posted by: Steve Day | 24 December 2022 at 10:43 AM
It is also a far cry from what was originally intended by everyone else for the newly independent PNG, Prisilla.
Even those of us who lived there during the colonial era never imagined the PNG political system would evolve into the way it is today.
A former kiap, Chris Overland, in PNG Attitude on 24 March this year described the current PNG political system as a "rotating elected kleptocracy".
Your very detailed explanation has shown us why it happened this way.
I am sure Attitude readers would welcome more contributions from you in future. You have explained the PNG election process perfectly. Thank you.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 24 December 2022 at 10:41 AM
That's a very good summary, at least as far as the Highlands go Prisilla.
I think what you describe might also have been the case before independence but without so much spending.
I was in the Highlands for the first full-blown campaign style election in 1968 and in what is now Western Province for the 1972 election.
The latter was a much more subdued affair with a more Westminster style feel to it. The candidates certainly didn't spend money like they did in the Highlands and were concentrated more on policy than largesse.
It's interesting how discussions about PNG come from a largely Highlands perspective these days.
With a notable exception being Bougainville - KJ
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 24 December 2022 at 09:02 AM