Election review: Papua New Guinea

Apologies for my failure to preview Papua New Guinea’s election, held in stages over three weeks in July. But yesterday it reached a culmination of sorts when, as AAP reports, incumbent prime minister James Marape was re-elected unopposed at the opening sitting of the new parliament.

The thing is, it’s hard to say anything very useful about a Papua New Guinean election. Processes are chaotic, few figures are ever released, and MPs once elected behave as a law unto themselves. As I put in my preview of the previous election, five years ago, “parties function as personal fiefdoms with little ideological or organisational coherence. MPs repeatedly move from party to party, and every government is in effect a collection of independents.”

Reports from this year’s election confirm many of one’s worst fears. The election was a violent business, with “dozens” of deaths, “thousands” of people turned away from polling stations, an armed attack on a counting centre, theft and destruction of ballots, fraud, bribery, rape – the list goes on. The fact that parliament apparently proceeded to the election of a prime minister with 13 seats undecided is probably not even the worst of the irregularities.

It’s important to stress again that this is not due to some inherent unfitness for self-government of the PNG people. Quite the contrary: as I pointed out last time, “they had a flourishing agricultural economy at a time when my ancestors were still sparse tribes of hunter-gatherers.” But European and Australian colonialism destroyed the indigenous social structures and replaced them with a government of alien and ill-fitting forms.

And once again, Australian media coverage has been thin at best. One wonders idly how many Australians would even identify our nearest neighbor correctly, much less know that it has recently held an election. Our difficulties in countering geopolitical rivals in the region are due in large part to our woeful record and our continuing ignorance.

The 2017 election resulted in the return to power of then prime minister Peter O’Neill, whose People’s National Congress (PNC) was the largest party with 29 of the 111 seats (increased this time to 118). But defections from his government – including that of Marape, his finance minister – led to his resignation in 2019, with Marape, now head of the Pangu Party, chosen to succeed him.

Marape, as is the norm, then suffered from defections in his turn, but a complicated political and constitutional crisis at the end of 2020 ended with him remaining in office. One of the key players in those manoeuvres, deputy prime minister and former Pangu leader Sam Basil, was killed in a car accident earlier this year, although there appears to be no suggestion of foul play.

The election seems to have strengthened Marape’s position, at least on paper. His coalition claims the allegiance of 82 MPs, with Pangu itself taking 36 seats (up from ten last time) and the PNC reduced to 14. O’Neill retained his seat but apparently left the chamber to show his disapproval of Marape’s re-election.

The requirement for a prime minister to be actually elected by parliament is an odd addition to what is otherwise a fairly normal Westminster system. It makes some sense as an adaptation to the extremely loose party system, although it’s possible that causation also runs the other way. It certainly provides no guarantee against governments losing their majority mid-term, as experience has amply demonstrated.

For all the dysfunctionality of its political system (and no thanks to Australia), PNG has actually made significant progress in recent years; even the level of election-related violence was down on 2017. The successful conduct of the Bougainville independence referendum in 2019 was an important milestone, and Marape seems less committed than some of his predecessors to resisting self-determination.

Now that he can claim a mandate in his own right he may be better equipped to deal with that and other problems.

PS: Ron May at the Conversation now has a very good account of the election, especially the logistical problems.

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