BY SANJAY BHOSALE
THE CANBERRA TIMES
PAPUA NEW GUINEA FACES A BIGGER, more sinister challenge than the tumultuous events since last December when the Supreme Court ordered reinstatement of former prime minister Sir Michael Somare was subverted by Parliament - the spectre of a delay to the national elections scheduled for June.
The apparent reason for a possible postponement is the shambolic state of the voter registration process where almost 40% or 1.6 million of the four million eligible voters are not yet on the electoral common roll, a situation that the government says will result in a ''failed election''.
Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said no decision had yet been taken on deferring the elections and that the government was working with the United Nations and the Australian Government to ensure the updating of the common roll was being carried out properly.
Mr O'Neill said his government had sought the UN's assistance to conduct an independent review of the electoral process and ''early indications are the United Nations have agreed to our request''. He said he would report the UN team's findings to Parliament in its next sitting, beginning on March 20, after which a decision on whether the elections should proceed will be made.
The latest developments should send alarm bells ringing in Canberra. Only last Friday, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, said the national elections due on June 23 were an opportunity for PNG to move on from the current political stalemate.
PNG's Deputy Prime Minster Belden Namah flagged the possibility of delaying the national elections during a parliamentary debate last weekend on a report by Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen on the state of election preparations.
Mr Namah put forward three reasons for the government considering a delay - the incomplete status of the voter registration process, the scheduled visit by Prince Charles to PNG in June, and the $16 billion PNG Liquefied Natural Gas project, which will enter a crucial construction phase around the time of the elections.
While there is merit in the first, the other two pretexts would be laughable if the matter weren't so serious. Mr Trawen told Parliament in his report that around 60 per cent of the electoral common roll had been updated, which translates to about 2.4 million of the country's four million eligible voters being registered to vote so far.
He expressed confidence that the roll would be finalised before polling is scheduled to begin on June 23. Given the fact that the PNG Electoral Commission has had five years to prepare for the exercise, Mr Trawen's confidence is misplaced and reflects rather poorly on the commission.
Still, this is nothing new. Not one of the seven elections since PNG's independence in 1975 has been held with a completed common roll. In fact, an incomplete common roll is just one of the myriad problems that bedevil elections in PNG.
Widespread election-related tribal violence, voter intimidation, block and ghost voting, multiple voting, ballot stuffing, hijacking of ballot boxes and bribery of voters are just some of the unpalatable features of PNG elections. Counting of votes can take up to two months and is frequently held up by Electoral Commission staff because of non-payment of their daily allowances, or by police and PNG Defence Force personnel, for the same reason.
But flawed as it is, the election remains the only legitimate expression of the people's will in choosing their leaders. In the current political quagmire, where Mr O'Neill suffers from a serious legitimacy deficit and the man he deposed in a parliamentary coup last August, founding prime minister Sir Michael, refuses to go quietly, an election is the only legitimate way to resolve the crisis.
(A Supreme Court case to decide on who is the legitimate prime minister is under way, but the court is fast running out of time to rule on the issue, as the government will go into caretaker mode once the election writs are issued on April 27.)
The PNG government says a new biometric voter identification system, which the Indian Government has been engaged to help install, will take at least six months to be in place. But the constitution does not allow the elections to be deferred, meaning that the government will have to suspend the constitution in order to defer the elections.
Opposition to the possible postponement has been swift and vocal. Sir Michael said the election must be held as planned and this was just another attempt by the O'Neill-Namah government to stay in power by unconstitutional means.
The PNG Trade Union Congress and anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International PNG echoed Sir Michael's concerns. PNGTUC general secretary John Paska said, ''This latest gimmick cuts deeply into the constitutional rights of the people of PNG, giving rise to the perception that the O'Neill faction is predisposed to reshape and bend the constitution any which way they choose to suit their ends.''
TI spokesman Lawrence Stephens said, ''It appears to us that we are, once again, witnessing MPs looking for a way to exempt themselves from facing the consequences of their actions. TI PNG is reliably informed that the electoral rolls are as ready as they have ever been and possibly more so.''
PNG's opposition leader, Australian-born Dame Carol Kidu, one of only two opposition MPs said, ''I get nervous [the delay] will go on longer than six months.''
So where does Australia stand on all this? Sir Michael’s defence spokesman, Andrew Kumbakor, has accused the Australian government of ignoring the leadership crisis in PNG, saying Australia had a responsibility to step in and help resolve the issue.
For its part, the Australian government has signed an agreement with the PNG government under which it will provide defence equipment and logistical assistance during the elections. Australia will provide two army helicopters to help deploy officials to polling booths, as well as 118 computers to assist in updating the electoral roll.
Senior advisers from Australia will also assist the PNG Electoral Commission, and a new Australian-funded communications network will help local police respond to any crises.
Mr Marles told the ABC that the elections offered a way out of the current crisis.
''I think the whole region looks forward to them, to those elections as an opportunity for PNG to move beyond what has been a very difficult period and obviously we will continue to work with the government of the day,'' he said.
And Australia's high commissioner to Port Moresby, Ian Kemish, told Fairfax recently he expected the forthcoming elections to be a historic sign of generation change.
Given Australia's stated interest in and ongoing efforts at promoting democracy and good governance in PNG, Mr Marles and Mr Kemish should use Canberra's considerable clout to impress upon the PNG government that the elections must be held as scheduled and any delay would be viewed unfavourably by the Australian government, not least because of the social and economic consequences arising from the continuing political instability in its nearest neighbour.
Delaying the national elections can only reinforce fears that the O'Neill government wants to postpone the election in order to consolidate its hold on the finances, machinery and apparatuses of government.
Sanjay Bhosale, a former associate editor of the PNG newspaper The National, is a Canberra Times journalist