IN AN ESSAY CONTEMPLATING the legacy of Australian administration in Papua New Guinea penned in the wake of the bloodied 2002 national election, historian Hank Nelson recounts the story of Handabe Tiaba, who arrived in Port Moresby in 1964 from the highlands town of Tari.
Tiaba was to serve as Tari's member in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea's new House of Assembly. Huli tribesmen are notoriously formidable warriors, and Tiaba had distinguished himself in their ranks as a fight leader - one tough man.
''At his election he was the husband of six wives, the father of 14 children and a subsistence farmer, but a supporter of the Methodist missionaries and government officers, he was a force for change among the Huli,'' wrote Nelson, an emeritus professor at Australian National University, longtime PNG resident and leading authority on its modern history. (Nelson died of cancer earlier this year, observing and dissecting PNG's escalating political upheaval almost to the end.)
''[Tiaba] was the only member of the House who spoke none of the official languages: English, Pidgin or Motu,'' Nelson wrote. Eventually an interpreter was found, and for the next four years his task was to provide whispered translations ''in a language that had no vocabulary for many of the objects, actions and ideas that [Tiaba] encountered. Yet that was the world that he was elected to manage, or at least influence.
''Seven years after he left the House the people of Tari were citizens in an independent nation.'' That was 1975. ''By 2002 the state provided almost no services in the area and the fighting was more deadly than it had been when Tiaba was a young man.'' And so it still was the last time Sir Michael Somare visited Tari as prime minister in 2010, and was ignominiously sent packing when locals threw rocks at him.
Tiaba's story illustrates a truth obscured in fragmentary news reports of PNG's vibrant, albeit often chaotic democracy - the microsecond of the existence of modern imposed systems relative to the longevity of the indigenous cultures that lie beneath. Political and economic transitions that evolved over centuries in other lands have transformed PNG in a generation.
As voters in its swelling population - heading towards 7 million - begin casting their ballots for a new national government today, the eighth time since independence from Australia in 1975, expect to hear a lot about Tari, and maybe about the fearsome Huli, now proudly occupying their own long-awaited, newly proclaimed province - Hela.
Hela is not the only hotspot in the volatile highlands, but it will without doubt be the most watched, because it is the crucible of PNG's future wealth - home to the massive $US16 billion Exxon-led liquefied natural gas project, the PNG LNG, now three years into construction and still more than a year away from production.
Election observers and international media teams have flocked to Tari - a ramshackle wild-west outpost, a cluster of food gardens, street stalls and buildings around an airstrip in the mountains, with no fixed power and no landline communications - in anticipation of violent action.
The Huli are not happy. This week election officials doing final fieldwork had to turn back when their vehicle was stoned. A recent investigation by a team of New Zealand (University of Otago) academics confirmed many local people feel increasingly excluded, frustrated and suspicious about the project that has already utterly changed their lives.
Disputes about the flow of royalties and benefits to landowners; the failure - blamed largely on the PNG government - to fully identify all the people entitled to a share of the windfall; distress over relocations; unrest over the generation (and now the contraction) of local jobs as the construction phase finishes; the destabilising arrival of big money and outsiders into isolated communities make for an explosive mix.
Then there's the underlying and omnipresent distress and anger of communities across PNG at the continuing deterioration and loss of basic services - roads, health, schools, access to power and water - and at the blatant corruption of politicians and public officials.
Tari is not unique (the same tensions play out widely in the resource-rich and culturally fiery interior, across which there have already been an estimated five election-related deaths, according to The National newspaper), but in few other places will the consequences of local displeasure reverberate quite so strongly into the wider world, playing through the national economy, international commodities markets and even geopolitics, as China and the US position to exploit the nation's gas, oil, copper and gold riches.
Analysts monitoring weapons stockpiles and simmering sentiment have been warning for months of electoral malpractice and, in the highlands, violence on a scale even beyond that of 2002, widely regarded as the nation's worst election, when the process was so wild that elections were deemed to have failed in six of nine southern highlands electorates.
A massive investment in security and voter education meant that the previous election, in 2007, was for the most part viewed as peaceful and well-organised (again with exceptions in some highlands seats) though, overall, the result was seen to still be deeply compromised by voting irregularities, bribery, corruption and intimidation.
Precisely what that entails is spelt out in some of the reports compiled after recent polls by election observers. They include accounts of children aged 12 and younger voting without hindrance; mass marking of ballot papers by supporters of candidates in full view; accounts of police teams attempting to stuff ballot boxes; the kidnap of a polling team with ballot boxes by a group of men armed with M16s; and frenzied fights around polling booths, including one account of a young man stabbed to death.
The threat of violence endures long after booths have closed. In Chimbu province in 2002 there were 25 deaths and accounts of hundreds of houses and thousands of coffee trees being razed by unhappy supporters of candidates who did not receive the votes they felt were their due. In 2007 there were three killings on polling days, and 19 post election payback deaths.
To have some understanding of the dynamics, Australians need to recognise that there is no effective party system, no defining philosophies or even policy platforms that candidates might subscribe to and voters might recognise. And for the 80 per cent rural population with access to few and fracturing services, plus the increasing number moving into crowded urban settlements, what galvanises voters is what candidates might deliver, in concrete terms, to them, their clans, their communities.
''Money politics'' - the local vernacular for bribery - continues to thrive. One businessman reported spending more than 700,000 kina ($336,000) in cash, subsidies for sports teams, women's groups, buying pigs for feasts as well as keeping his campaign teams on the road. Forking out 1 million kina on campaigns is not uncommon in the western and southern highlands.
Papua New Guineans cherish their democracy, and campaign season is festive, lively and a financial windfall for many, underwriting a huge cash injection into local economies. Local newspapers reported last week that one highlands farmer had been paid 10,000 kina for three pigs - triple their value only a few months ago. Pity the pigs in PNG election season, the centrepiece of every pork-barrelling feast.
While they always love an election, citizens have been counting the days to this one, having endured years of stagnation under the Somare government, and months of political turmoil since it was controversially - and illegally - ousted by a parliamentary vote delivering power to Peter O'Neill last August.
For Australians following the voting process over the next days and weeks, understanding requires not only a grasp of the political and social dynamics, but also the huge logistical and geographical challenge.
Today voting begins, but it may be weeks - months - before a result is clear.
Ballot boxes will move around the country collecting votes over two weeks, weather permitting. Election officials and materials have to be distributed and collected from communities sprinkled through some of the most inaccessible country on earth.
The logistical challenge was explained by Australian Colonel Andrew MacNab, commander of the military joint taskforce assisting the election effort. ''PNG is about twice the size of Victoria in land area,'' he told SBS. ''If you can imagine Victoria with a road that runs maybe from Geelong to Melbourne, across to Frankston, and another road that runs from Gippsland up to Mount Buffalo, that's the extent of the road transport.''
What he didn't add was that even those roads are broken or insecure. Hence pretty much everything has to move by air, or by sea.
There are a record 3435 candidates - only 136 of them women - standing in 89 open and 22 provincial seats. In one seat, there are 73 contenders. Casting of votes is a painstaking process. First there is the challenge of identifying people on the rolls - and despite years of work, the rolls remain in a very poor state, insiders say, and there is already an expectation of a long list of disputed returns looming for the courts.
The voting process is complex - votes are distributed on a limited preferential system, with voters required to write three two-digit code numbers and/or the names of their three preferred candidates on the ballots. Because of high illiteracy rates in many areas, many voters require assistance identifying candidates by their pictures and numbers - displayed on posters at every polling booth. Producing the posters alone is a formidable logistical exercise. A secret ballot it is not.
Collecting and counting the ballots is the next hurdle. It’s at least a three-week process. Security remains a big issue here, especially if hot-headed candidates become persuaded that the boxes do not contain the results they might wish, or nurse suspicions that counters might steal their votes. Usually 60 per cent of incumbents lose their seats, in 2002 it was 75 per cent.
Then the real horse-trading between winning candidates with the 46 recognised parties and the independents begins.
As ANU specialist on PNG politics, Dr Bill Standish, explains, the key to who will be the next prime minister is anyone's guess, as it turns on the so-called Integrity Law, which gives the party which elects the largest number of endorsed candidates first go at nominating the prime minister to form a government.
Until that moment, speculation on who will do a deal with whom is irrelevant ''because you get this massive bandwagon effect - it's obvious from halfway through the count which party is the strongest, and then everyone jumps into his canoe''. Leaders from the various parties offer their allegiance to the dominant party in the hope of picking up ministerial roles and the perks that come with them.
With the once dominant Somare National Alliance now fractured, ''nobody has a strong sense of which parties are likely to have chosen winners in the greatest proportion''.
''The whole nature of the game meant that in 2007 Somare was actually very unpopular, and people wondered how the hell he got back in. But National Alliance had set up a pretty good network of branches, getting in ambitious local figures. Plus having all the advantages of incumbency.
"It's hypothetically possible for a majority of MPs to gang up and block the leader of the largest party. It's unlikely, but could be used against a really unpopular individual."
''There are some who say O'Neill is pretty confident that his party is strong enough to get up'' - even 20 seats out of 111 might be enough (Somare got power working from a base of 19 members).
Whether there will be any women in the new parliament - there was only one in the last, Dame Carol Kidu, and she has retired - remains uncertain. It's a long way from the euphoric expectations of many women only a few months ago that there would be at least 22 females installed in reserved seats, one for each province, as an interim affirmative action measure. The Women's Bill got stuck in the political maelstrom of recent months.
Schola Kakas, president of the National Council of Women, says: ''I'm hoping, fingers crossed, that we have at least three or four women in the parliament. We have very good female candidates - intellectual, highly qualified, they would participate well on the floor. The only problem is that they don't have the money (to campaign).''
Also, as political scientist Dr Orovu Sepoe has observed, women candidates are still hamstrung by ''prevailing cultural perceptions of men as the decision-makers … the large number of male candidates compared to females not only demonstrates this perception but reinforces it''.
The highest-profile female contender is Dorothy Tekwie, the Greens leader, who is said by some to be shaping up as a chance in the seat of Vanimo-Green River area - but she is up against the heavyweight Deputy Prime Minister, Belden Namah, who is wealthy, ambitious and ruthlessly determined. Tekwie insists she can win if the election is ''free and fair'', but claims she has already been pressured to pull out with both bribes and threats.
Exploring the lay of the land as the ballots went out this week, another Australian academic authority on PNG, Dr Ron May, laid out a brief summary of the recent political ructions, which culminated in a series of electrifying confrontations between the Supreme Court and the parliamentary executive - the tensions for the moment defused, but not dead.
While ''it is hoped that the election will help end the destablising conduct which has dominated the political scene since August 2011,'' Dr May said, it ''remains to be seen'' if events ''will permanently damage the country's quality of democracy''. He ventures no opinion on what might happen next.
As his ANU colleague, the late Hank Nelson, concluded philosophically in one of his final papers delving into the impenetrable jungle of political and social culture of the land just a short boat trip from Australia's northernmost beaches: ''As is often the case in Papua New Guinea, unfolding events continue to unfold.''