STATISTICAL indicators suggest that Papua New Guinea’s O’Neill government used its power of incumbency to ‘cook the books’ in its favour in the current election.
Comparing the 2017 electoral roll with electorate population estimates based on the 2011 census, the Electoral Commission has created nearly 300,000 ‘ghost voters’ in People’s National Congress-controlled electorates.
This is 5,682 ghost voters for every PNC sitting member – more than 10 times the number of ghost voters for non-PNC sitting members.
PNC members are also being declared elected based on mathematical impossibilities.
PNG’s vibrant democracy, including its extraordinary diversity and combination of individual choice and clan loyalties, may still be able to overcome such electoral bias in favour of O’Neill.
This may depend on the moral choices about to be made by new independent members. O’Neill’s party has likely manipulated this election.
May they choose wisely and morally, not just chasing PNC’s money politics, when they decide on PNG’s new government.
One extraordinary indicator of electoral bias is that PNC supported electorates had an average of 5,682 extra people on the electoral roll relative to their population.
The number of these ghost voters was over ten times larger than the average of 507 for non-PNC electorates.
Overall, there were nearly 300,000 more people on the electoral roll in PNC electorates than the latest population census would suggest. This is much greater than the extra 20,000 in non-PNC electorates.
It seems the cleansing of the 2017 electoral roll, assisted by Australia, was able to find nearly all the ghost electors in non-government seats, but failed abysmally in seats held by the government.
This is a very sad comment on the quality of the electoral commissioner’s management of the election. Combined with his failure to maintain the confidence of the independent Electoral Advisory Committee, he should resign and give power to a truly independent body.
So we know that this electoral bias provided nearly 300,000 extra votes to government-held electorates. But what does this mean in practical terms?
First, this type of electoral bias made it more likely that your name would be on the roll if you turned up to vote in an electorate controlled by the government.
Many citizens were disenfranchised by not having their name on the roll. For non-PNC electorates, if we exclude the statistical outlier of the electorate of Obura-Wonenara, all other non-PNC electorates had on average 864 less names on the electoral roll than suggested by the latest census.
The extensively reported incidence of double voting is easier to accomplish when there are more names on the roll. And it’s easier to sneak in a few extra pre-filled ballot boxes with ballots already marked in favour of the preferred candidate.
But the key issue is how these extra votes were actually distributed at the sub-electorate level – by local level government, ward and polling station.
The story of the Simbu election scrutineers indicated the type of manipulation that is easier to do in electorates where PNC members have many more ghost voters.
We know that due to clan loyalty and views of leadership, some seats will comfortably go to particular people and parties. In the case of finance minister James Marape. his re-election was expected, so it is hard to determine why there would need to be manipulation (one explanation is that it was targeted as an early declared victory to provide a head-start to the vital government coalition formation process).
In the 89 open electorates (not the 22 province-wide electorates), the average first preference vote was 8,500 – only 20% of all votes cast. If you had the most first preference votes, you generally won the election– three-quarters of all elected members won their first preference count.
So by adding even 1,000-2,000 possible votes in areas where candidates had particularly strong support, you could gain the extra few percent which can be vital for overall success. An average of 5,682 ghost voters provided enormous flexibility to manipulate the election.
Of course, there were an amazing amount of diverse factors influencing the election – proper and improper. So this type of manipulation would not necessarily overcome other issues which could affect a politician’s popularity.
For example, it does not account for major election promises that are particularly beneficial to certain electorates, such as the prime minister’s K3.5 billion give-away of a substantial share of its ownership of the PNG LNG project to landowners in Hela. Why wouldn’t you vote for PNC with this massive handout (even as it destroys budget credibility and issues of equity across PNG)?
There are many factors and influences determining systematic bias that cannot be tested by mathematical analysis. The courts presumably will go into much more detail, such as whether voters were constitutionally allowed to vote on Sundays or whether there was unlawful intimidation in certain areas.
There are more rigorous statistical tools available to inform an understanding of the electoral bias evident in this election. Their application would require more detailed information and it is a shame the electoral commission is hiding this.
It was understandable that the electoral advisory committee resigned as it wasn’t getting the kind of detailed information it required to do its job. Nevertheless, there may be enough public information to conclude that there has been systemic bias towards PNC and that some electorates have mathematically impossible outcomes.
Some of the mathematical impossibility bias indicators are crude but damning.
There was no explanation provided for how the first member elected, James Marape, won in an electorate where there were between 7,000 and 20,000 more votes cast than there were names on the electoral roll or shown in the latest population census.
This is the type of bias that the electoral advisory committee could have examined and, if there remained major issues of mathematical impossibility, recommended that the election in that electorate should be re-run.
As a general rule, unless some clear explanation can be provided, an election should be re-run if the number of votes cast exceed the number of people on the electoral roll or based on the latest census.
As the election count continues, a key third stage of the four stage election process, there is a great need for integrity from officials, scrutineers and police. And there are still key decisions ahead for the electoral commissioner and even the governor general.
These decisions would be better informed by greater information sharing – this could help confirm the legitimacy of the election.
Looking ahead, such analysis could also provide benchmarks for making the 2022 election better and fairer.
The final stage in this election is the formation of the governing coalition. No party will win an absolute majority and there is a clear coalition of parties that are anti-O’Neill, including former coalition partner, National Alliance.
Independent members and parties opposed to O’Neill have a critical role in shaping PNG’s future.
Hopefully, they will reflect on the legitimacy of many PNC members who benefited from some form of vote rigging.
The early choice by the so-called “Independent” member for Koroba-Lake Kopiago, Petrus Nane Thomas, to immediately join PNC without time for considering alternatives was a disappointing start.
May other Independent candidates be guided by the Bible and their moral vision to decide whether such deliberate bias should be rewarded with the right to rule.