In this final article based on the Australian National University’s report on the 2017 Papua New Guinea election, journalist Mark Davis concludes with the observer group’s finding that there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between the PNG people and their politicians – and it’s not for the better.
You can link to the full ANU report here
CAIRNS - Money politics, the use of criminal elements and the engagement of security forces are a feature of elections in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, and have slowly spread into all other regions, most recently into the PNG Islands and Milne Bay.
The ANU report states:
“Money played a huge part in the 2017 elections, and there is no doubt that ‘money politics’, which continues to be most pervasive in the Highlands, was more significant than ever before.
“Candidates across the country (in all four regions) were observed to have spent significant amounts of money securing support and offering material incentives to voters.
“Though widespread, money politics was of a different order than in earlier elections, being focused on key officials and those with the ability to influence. It was mediated by ‘strongmen’ in some communities, and well-respected leaders in others.
“There was also a significant flow of resources from voters to candidates, providing an ideal situation for ‘strongmen’ and other community leaders to consolidate their political influence at the local and parliamentary level.
“The flow of resources from communities to candidates as mediated by local strongmen signals a fundamental shift in the relationship between constituents and their political representatives.”
Problems with the electoral roll were a feature of voter discontent. In 2017, all 35 observer teams noted serious defects with it, and the report finds that “many citizens were not provided genuine opportunity to register on a non-discriminatory basis, nor were they provided reasonable opportunity to inspect the electoral roll prior to or during the election.
“We also find that the poor state of the 2017 electoral roll created such angst, disaffection and disenfranchisement that it influenced almost every other aspect of the election.”
In contrast to previous elections, responsibility for preparing the roll was devolved to provinces, and a Decentralised Enrolment System (DES) was introduced.
In many provinces preparation was delayed due to funding shortfalls and, when it did occur, it served to exacerbate the problems identified in past elections rather than obviate them.
The pattern of simultaneous under-enrolment and over-enrolment noted in many locations across the country in 2007 and 2012 was again evident in 2017. Overall, very few of the 7,510 citizens surveyed pre- and post-polling had confidence in the electoral roll, with confidence dropping to just 10% in 2017.
In many electorates there were disputes about which version of the roll was being used, and there were discrepancies between the rolls being used and voter details being given by the newly introduced online Roll-LookUp app.
Based on the access provided to ANU researchers, “it seems that widespread, and in many cases, systematic, hijacking of the roll update process occurred.
“It also seems that the poor state of the 2017 electoral roll created such angst, disaffection and disenfranchisement that it influenced almost every other aspect of the election.”
These sentiments are also reflected in the Transparency International PNG election report, and friends and family of independent observers identified numerous irregularities including ghost names and missing voters in their own electorates.
Economist Paul Flanagan demonstrated in a statistical analysis that there appeared to be systematic manipulation of the electoral roll in the fortnight preceding polling and that this manipulation favoured Peter O’Neill’s People’s National Congress.
The ANU report says the electoral roll used in Hela Province on polling day was dated 15 June 2017. It provided the basis on which ballot papers were distributed at the ward level.
Typically wards received an allocation of papers equivalent to the number of electors enrolled plus five additional ballot papers. But the 15 June 2017 electoral roll simultaneously exhibited gross under-enrolment and over-enrolment at ward level, which seemingly benefited key PNC-endorsed candidates.
In one electorate observers collectively identified over 1,500 eligible citizens whose names were missing from the roll.
Their detailed checks on the rolls for two of the 64 wards also revealed 300 entries for people who were either unknown, deceased, living elsewhere, underage or duplicate entries.
Assuming similar numbers of ineligible entries in each of the other wards then there may be as many as 10,000 excess enrolments in that one electorate.
“Overall, the nomination period proved more eventful than in either 2007 or 2012,” the ANU says. “In several locations observers reported that individual candidates experienced difficulty nominating.
“The most notable example of this was in Ialibu-Pangia Open, where rival candidates and observers alike reported that candidates seeking to challenge the PM Peter O’Neill experienced considerable difficulty nominating.
“While the PM successfully nominated at Pangia Station without incident, other candidates took to social media reporting that the district electoral office was inexplicably closed and/or unattended when they sought to nominate.”
High profile challenger Stanley Liria eventually managed to track down the returning officer and nominate just prior to the close of nominations.
He posted photos and video of his nomination rally and convoy on Facebook to demonstrate that he was a legitimate candidate.
Other candidates in other seats reported similar difficulties, and some even found that they were not on the electoral roll and that their nominations had not been processed.
Detailed observations were made at 945 of the 10,825 polling station nationwide and, in every electorate in which observations were made, procedural anomalies and serious irregularities were noted.
“Serious irregularities, including personation, underage voting, multiple voting and proxy voting, have seemingly become commonplace across much of the country and served to undermine the integrity of the vote,” the report says.
In the Highlands, observers did not see individual voting “of a kind associated with democratic elections”. Two-thirds (65%) of all citizens surveyed post polling considered the 2017 elections worse than the 2007 and 2012 elections, and fewer than half (46%) reported being able to freely exercise their vote.
Long delays in the lead-up to polling day resulted in Sunday voting in some electorates, including that of O’Neill, which is in contravention of the constitutional laws covering elections.
O’Neill has a standing instruction to the Electoral Commission to declare his Ialibu-Pangia seat first, providing as it does a strong fillip to PNC’s campaign in the multitude of seats where polling has not started or is continuing.
Mr Liria filed a supreme court reference seeking a ruling on the constitutionality of Sunday polling but later withdrew his application in the “national interest” stating that “his participation in the court proceedings and the court proceedings themselves could be contributing to the ongoing unrest in and about Southern Highlands”.
Other electorates where Sunday voting took place included Kandrian-Gloucester Open, Menyamya Open and Central Bougainville Open. The votes cast on Sunday in Kandrian-Gloucester Open were declared informal by Provincial Returning Officer Emily Kelton, and were removed from the count.
The report states that vote counting was worse than in prior elections, with fewer checks and balances witnessed. Numerous ballot boxes were destroyed, tampered with or hijacked, and many were set aside or excluded from counting.
As a consequence, 13 seats were declared with fewer than 80% of all boxes counted, including three provincial seats which were declared with less than 30% of all boxes counted. Examples are given in the report of ballot boxes containing excess ballot papers, or too few ballot papers. In Chimbu Province, 11,500 excess ballot papers were destroyed.
Immediately before the campaign, serious questions were raised about the Electoral Commission’s decision to have the ballot papers printed in Indonesia, a task usually done domestically.
Rumours abounded of “additional papers”, and they appear to have been confirmed by key officials, security personnel and independent witnesses.
Polling and counting were significantly delayed across the nation, by up to several days in some places because of a range of administrative failures, interference by candidates, security personnel and dissatisfied voters.
In other places, counting appeared to have been deliberately delayed or manipulated to disadvantage Opposition MPs.
For example, the report states, “counting in Madang Open and Moresby North West Open proceeded extremely slowly, being prolonged by demands from trailing PNC incumbents that full recounts be undertaken.
Moresby North West Open also delivered one of the scandalous highlights of the election, namely the absurd Airways Hotel room declaration of third placed candidate Joseph Tonde. Madang and Moresby North-West are Opposition strongholds held by Bryan Kramer and Sir Mekere Morauta respectively.
The report covers many other areas of concern and provides more detailed examples of irregularities and outright corruption.
It validates the conclusions drawn by many in 2017 that led to calls for a commission of inquiry and for O’Neill’s election to be invalidated.
Mark Davis worked as a media adviser to Sir Mekere Morauta, former prime minister and Member for Moresby North-West in the national parliament