How people elect parliaments
Elections taking place in Papua New Guinea are tainted by both chaos and corruption, according to a leading independent election observer.
Elections for the 111-member National Parliament are run over several days, due to the logistical difficulties of moving polling facilities through the nation’s difficult-to-transit non-urban regions.
Voting will finish tomorrow (Saturday), but vote counting may take a week.
89 local district-elected MPs are joined in the Parliament by one additional MP elected for each of the 22 provinces, who also serve as the provincial governors.
PNG politics is heavily influenced by its culture and demographics. Outside of the capital Port Moresby, a multitude of often very small communities have competing interests in electing MPs, especially in the 89 local constituencies.
Winning a seat in parliament for a locality opens up crucial access to state funds and – all too often – opportunities for personal enrichment and corruption.
PNG elections see a bewildering array of candidates nominate for the attractions of a seat in Parliament, with an average of 22 candidates per district at the 2012 elections.
From 1977 the Parliament was elected by the plurality (first past the post) voting method, until switching in 2007 to a limited form of preferential voting.
In past FPTP –based elections there were instances of candidates winning seats with less than 10% of the vote.
Under current rules voters in each electoral district mark preferences for exactly three candidates, but given the large number of candidates this is usually too few preferences to ensure that seat winners eventually secure even a preferential majority of the actual total of votes cast in the district.
In addition the boundaries of the 89 districts have not been reviewed for over 30 years, leading to progressive malapportionment.
The demographics of PNG are simply too locally diverse for electoral representation, and the formation of stable political parties, to operate as occurs in more politically homogenized nations.
Lawrence Stephens, Chair of international NGO Transparency International in PNG, has been monitoring the elections, and told Australia’s ABC Radio that both chaos and corruption are in play in the election.
In 2016 Transparency International ranked Papua New Guinea as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking it 136 out of 176 nations surveyed.
Ballot materials for the 2017 PNG election (image: Transparency International Facebook page)
But Stephens says mere chaos, as much as corruption, may be a major factor this time, describing this years election as “one of the most chaotic since independence.”
There have been numerous reports of polling places not opening correctly at advertised times, of not having correct electoral rolls, and even a claim of ballot boxes being burned.
Other claims describe officials being caught with suspicious amounts of cash, and one person being arrested after voting 7 times.
According to Stephens the election has at least been calm “in many places”, with minimal reports of significant violence. Other media reports are less positive.
Charles Richardson, political and elections correspondent for Australia’s Crikey online news service, writes ($paywall) that the current election seems to have been plagued by worse than usual election problems.
“Voting in the capital, Port Moresby, was aborted last week and re-run three days later, after polling staff went on strike and the election manager was arrested,” according to Richardson.
“According to the ABC, “Candidates say voters in areas hostile to the Government have been taken off the electoral roll, and there are documented incidents of ballot papers stolen and boxes destroyed.”
“The Guardian adds that “In the highlands ballot boxes had been stolen and destroyed, people were casting their votes without privacy in plain sight of officials and other voters, and fighting had broken out between rival clan groups and also between voters and police.””
Under all these conditions PNG party politics is very fluid. Many MPs effectively act as independents loosely available to support a governing party in return for advantages for themselves or their community.
Current Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has managed to stay on top of this turbulent political system since 2011, although there have been determined challenges to his control of the numbers in parliament.
Party politics is fractious. No PNG political party has ever won a majority of parliamentary seats in an election.
At the end of the previous parliament the O’Neill government’s 6-party coalition held an apparently dominant 84 out of the 111 seats. But O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (PNC) party had won only 27 seats at the elections in 2012, the largest number by any party. Only one other party won more than 10 seats.
Other MPs then joined PNC during the term to double its party numbers to 54, still just short of a one-party parliamentary majority.
In the last parliamentary term O’Neill forestalled parliament from even sitting for many months to prevent it passing an expected no-confidence motion, until he could reassert control over the numbers to stay in office.
Under current parliamentary rules aimed at stabilising government, albeit at considerable cost to accountability, governments are not subject to no-confidence motions during their first 18 months and the last 12 months of the parliamentary term.
Stephens lamented that corruption may get worse after the election, with the new parliament possibly adjusting existing laws to make it more difficult for misbehaviors by parliamentarians to be detected and addressed.
Australian elections analyst Adam Carr, publisher of the extensive Psephos election data web site, also points out that no reliable data on the 2012 elections in PNG has ever been officially published.
Richardson argues that that too many decades of neglect by Australian administrators during the early and mid 20th century contributed to the nation’s underdevelopment.
PNG was one of the last nations to achieve independence during the 20th century, being administered under an Australian mandate until 1975.
(Post title image: National Parliament of Papua New Guinea)