ONE of the major challenges for Papua New Guinea’s Electoral Commission and for its voters in the coming 2017 national election that the ballot should be free and fair.
All the good things we have talked about for 2017 and beyond, including our dream of a good and honest government that will steer PNG out of troubled waters, boils down to this one crucial factor –free and fair voting.
There had hardly been free and fair voting in past elections and it is most unlikely there will be in 2017.
The bribery, hold ups, hijacking of ballot papers, threats, coercion and multiple voting experienced in the past are likely to be repeated next year unless the Electoral Commission comes up with a strategy that will contain or minimise these problems and produce a free and fair election.
Two important approaches that come to my mind involve biometric electioneering and security.
The Electoral Commission talked about biometric electioneering (e-voting) some time ago and it appears to me as the fairest way for people to cast their votes freely without intimidation or fear.
The system creates equal opportunity for everybody to exercise their right to vote.
Furthermore, it deters and insulates against the violence involved in hijacking ballot papers and other foul play and discrepancies as there are good checks and balances. This means an honest outcome.
Unfortunately e-voting is probably not going to be employed in the coming election because of time limitation as it will involve training, awareness, biometric registration and so forth.
Adding to the lack of time is lack of funding. The system will demand a lot of money and, in the economic crisis the country is facing, the government will not be willing to spend the cash.
The Electoral Commission has already been complaining about underfunding for election preparations. They have publicly voiced that they are not sure how well they are going to get everything ready under current budget constraints.
The second option for a free and fair election is to heighten security especially in violent and trouble-prone polling locations, most of which are in the highlands.
Polling in coastal areas and urban centres has been quite peaceful and orderly in the past. But in the highlands, especially rural areas, it has been violent and aggressive and involving the use of firearms.
The chance of such scenario being repeated in 2017 is high. The most reliable way to stop it is to deploy the army to oversee and provide security for polling officials and voters.
The 2007 election was said to be generally peaceful and orderly in the highlands and elsewhere because the military was deployed in polling places alongside police and correctional personnel.
People were afraid of getting bashed up by the armed forces and behaved well and cast their votes in an orderly way.
It had been different in 2012. Violence, hijacking of ballot papers, gang control and juvenile voting were prevalent because there was a lack of security. Polling in some highlands electorates was declared void because of this.
Women, old people and disabled people were pushed aside. They were not given the opportunity to vote.
I believe the Electoral Commission knows the likely trouble spots. And these are the areas that require a heavy presence of army and other disciplined forces to supervise and control polling so every eligible voter - including women, the old and disabled people - can cast their votes and do so freely.
If we want credible and honest people with qualifications, experience and vision to get into parliament to run the country’s affairs, polling must be free, fair, peaceful and orderly without any form of duress and intimidation. Can this happen in 2017?
My prediction is that, if the government does not deploy the army to control and provide security, 2017 will offer us a flawed election.
We will have desperados using tactics like duress, intimidation and hijacking ballot papers to vote themselves into parliament and get rich.