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Papua New Guinea election leads to indecision

By Rowan Callick

Papua New Guinea’s struggle to complete its election tells the story of the country’s continuing woes.

It is derived from one part corruption, one part inadequate funding, and several parts of the kind of bureaucratic incompetence that mars so many PNG institutions.

This year’s election — the ninth since independence from Australia — which in theory finished last Saturday, started quietly with the most low-key campaigning period in living memory — since most candidates simply did not have the money to spend on the colourful electioneering of the past.

In 2002, especially in the Southern Highlands, about 100 people died as the election campaign burst into tribal warfare.

This time, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and Opposition Leader Don Polye were the only leaders with the resources to run truly ­nationwide campaigns, and most indications so far point to O’Neill emerging again as the winner.

The rapid ubiquity of mobile phone networks and the scabrous liveliness of PNG’s social media pointed to them serving as the source of a powerful interjection in the election — especially driving antipathy against O’Neill amid claims of corruption — but this does not appear to have happened as anticipated.

Despite the frequent struggle to get to polling stations, with PNG’s remaining infrastructure still so poor that many voters must walk or canoe for long distances, the turnout has again been high, up to 80 per cent in some electorates.

Voting in Port Moresby was halted, and then recommenced on a later date, when the city’s election manager was arrested after police found an unexplained $75,000 in his car, and two other electoral staff were arrested for trying to smuggle ballot papers from the electoral commission headquarters.

But the two core issues have been the shocking state of the electoral rolls — which meant that many of those who took such trouble were unable to vote — and the extraordinarily slow pace of the counting now under way.

The PNG Electoral Commission, a statutory body, only started to upgrade the rolls six months ago within an increasingly fluid population, leaving itself far too little time.

Most Papua New Guineans live in rural areas, and few possess personal identification documents with photos that would be viewed as legally acceptable.

In a number of constituencies — including that of Australian-born Sumkar MP Ken Fairweather — the returning officer conceded that the names of so many would-be voters in queues could not be found on the new rolls that the electoral staff simply let everyone vote.

The incredibly slow rate of counting is a new problem. It is being exacerbated by some electoral commission officers deliberately going slow or stopping work because they claim they have not been paid.

The count is also more complex than in the past, when PNG used the first-past-the-post system.

Following a series of reforms introduced by then prime minister Mekere Morauta, parliamentarians — 89 representing “open” constituencies and 22 representing regional seats, whose members usually become provincial governors — have been chosen by a partial preferential system, to encourage collaboration between parties rather than enmity.

But this is the third election to feature preferential voting, so the commission should be familiar with the extra counting requirements involved.

The writs are supposed to be returned on July 24, but it appears almost certain that this period will be extended. Parliament was due to sit in the first week in August, when the Governor-General, Bob Dadae, will invite the leader of the party with most MPs to try to form a government.

This is then tested on the floor of parliament, and if that person fails, the party with the next largest number of seats gets a chance.

The opening of parliament is now also likely to be set back for a few weeks until the electoral chaos has settled down and the 111 MPs have emerged.

An independent advisory committee established to assess the conduct of the election has resigned, complaining of failing to receive the information it requires to do their job.

During previous parliaments, the Court of Disputed Returns — its judges chosen by the chief justice — was inundated with petitions claiming that corruption or malpractice had led to the wrong result.

On average, about 10 of the 111 MPs declared elected have in the past been unseated by the Court of Disputed Returns; the average appears likely to be exceeded after this poorly conducted election.

The claims of corruption remain strong and constant in PNG. And O’Neill has committed to introducing an independent commission against corruption. But he has failed to expend sufficient political capital to establish a commission during the most recent five-year parliament.

Within this setting, Morauta — a former central bank governor and finance secretary, and founder of a successful prawn fishing business — has decided to return to the fray. He did not contest the last election, but has now stood again — in part as the consequence of a bitter, personal falling out with O’Neill.

The origins of their mutual animus are complex, but emanate from O’Neill’s decision to nationalise the Ok Tedi mine and the PNG Sustainable Development Program, which was tasked by global mining company BHP Billiton when it relinquished ownership, alongside the then PNG government, to administer accumulated mining royalties in trust on behalf of the people of the mine area in the Western Province, and to a degree all of PNG.

Morauta has so far successfully fought court battles, as chairman of PNGSDP, to defend the trust. But the mine is now run by the government.

This intense disagreement has shaded to a degree the conduct of public life in PNG, given that those at the top remain a comparatively small circle, and if Morauta, with rare experience and intelligence, returns to parliament as the member for Moresby North-West — a possibility but not a certainty, based on the count so far — then it will colour the parliament too.

Only two winners have been declared so far — both ministers in the government, Finance Minister James Marape and Sports Minister Justin Tkatchenko, a former Australian.

O’Neill’s People’s National Congress party won 27 seats in 2012, and appears set to emerge again as the largest party, this time with the National Alliance, now led by Patrick Pruaitch who was removed in May as treasurer by O’Neill, as the likely next biggest.

The National Alliance was originally formed by PNG’s founding father Michael Somare, who has finally retired after 49 years in parliament, and is likely to be replaced as East Sepik regional member by his daughter Dulcie, who is a member of Pangu, the party her father originally led through independence.

It appears that former prime minister Julius Chan is in trouble in New Ireland, and his son Byron, a Mining Minister whose relations with the crucial resource industry have often been tense, appears set to lose his seat.

While the count remains embryonic, O’Neill’s PNC is leading in almost half the constituencies.

Given the country’s poor economic state — owing to a combination of low commodity prices and inept administration and, many critics claim, corruption — why does it appear that O’Neill may be returned?

The chief reason is free schooling, a very popular policy he took to the last election and has succeeded in introducing widely, with one result being a substantial increase in school intake.

Another, is devolving administration to the district level, effectively bypassing the provincial level. Each MP is given about $4 million annually to spend through district committees — a channel accused of wastage and corruption, but viewed well by those who have been recipients.

Paul Flanagan, director of PNG Economics, tells The Australian that as has happened so often before, the expectations of a resources-led solution to PNG’s economic and other challenges have been dashed: “The promises of gold from the large and successful PNG liquefied natural gas project were not delivered, as oil prices collapsed at the time the project came on-stream,” he says.

“There was no plan B for either the economy or the budget. Government forecasts are now of slow growth — negative in per capita terms — until the possibility of new resource projects from 2019. PNG’s revenues have collapsed — with most of this reflecting depressed local sales and investment. Despite major cuts to expenditure, the government deficit was unsustainably large at 4.6 per cent of GDP in 2016.”

Foreign exchange rationing and an overvalued exchange rate, along with proposed policies in agriculture and land, have meanwhile hurt business confidence. “Any re-elected government will need to take steps to rebuild investment — both domestically as well as from international investors,” Flanagan says.

There is a need for less government intervention, he says, and more policies aiming to encourage the private sector — such as moving PNG’s currency, the kina, to more competitive levels to encourage agriculture exports.

Paul Barker, executive director of PNG’s Institute of National Affairs, says that although the election has been unusually peaceful, “many consider it the worst on record since such a large portion of voters seem to have been disenfranchised — with figures like 30 to 60 per cent being quoted for different polling stations not finding their names.”

Other key issues include, he says, the limited number of ballot papers, often far too few for the number of registered voters.

Reports from some electorates indicated very little control of the process by the electoral officials, he adds, “with anyone going inside the polling areas and groups of young men, and sometimes security, leaning over voters in the polling booths”. Besides, in some polling stations the first choice on the form was reported to have been prefilled, whereas in others ballot papers were prefilled as directed by community leaders.

“Most voters and most officials, including police, were certainly endeavouring to do the right thing,” he Barker says. “Unfortunately, that has widely been denied, in a way markedly worse and more widespread than in previous elections.”

He says “it’s been a very costly exercise hosting this election and the country is going through a very tight financial squeeze, cutting back in recent years on much — even priority health, education, infrastructure and other expenditure — so it’s difficult to see how the whole process could be repeated, at least for some time.”

The O’Neill government, he says, got under way with major plans, many featuring large infrastructure projects, based on expectations of a strong economic performance, partly based on the development of LNG.

“The reality has, however, proven disappointing, partly as a result of external factors, such as lower-than-expected prices, but also unrealistic expectations, over-borrowing and expenditure on often prestige or half-planned initiatives,” Barker says.

He says that having Morauta being critical from outside parliament, perhaps in a patronising manner, frustrated O’Neill, “but the idea of him re-entering the chamber, particularly in any position of authority, has clearly raised the level of frustration and antipathy between the two gentlemen.”

Barker says that funds have been dished out to rural areas in greater amounts, “albeit under a very poorly managed and ill-accounted-for mechanism, based upon political patronage. In some districts this has resulted in significant upgrades and restoration of facilities, while in others there’s little to show for it.”

Positive reforms have been made, he says, in the fields of addressing gender-based violence, with the Family Protection Act and measures to protect children, in population and employment policies, and in greater transparency over resource revenue.

And in agriculture, which employs far more Papua New ­Guineans than any other sector, “despite many innovations by producers, processors and traders, overall it’s been a challenging few years with little apparent support to improve their capacity and competitiveness”.

The list of challenges for the new — or likely retained — government is thus already long.

Two more loom.

One is the APEC leaders meeting, to be held in Port Moresby in mid-November next year, when PNG is set to host the presidents of the US, China and Russia, among others. Concerns are understood to be running high in Canberra about PNG’s capacity to pull this off effectively — or without dangerously unbalancing its domestic priorities.

The other is the referendum on June 15, 2019, when Bougainvilleans will decide whether they want to become independent of PNG — a crucial issue that has dragged on since PNG itself became independent, and which helped trigger a 10-year civil war; it will be a mighty challenge for any government, once this bungled election finally flops over the line.

Rowan Callick is The Australian’s China correspondent and was previously the newspaper’s Asia-Pacific editor.

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