EPapua New Guinea’s elections are notoriously volatile and dangerous. But this year’s elections have involved violence, intimidation, corruption and administrative incompetence on what appears to be an exceptional scale.
The Commonwealth observer team on the ground called for an urgent review of the electoral process, noting that nearly half of eligible voters may have been disenfranchised.
Yet the Australian government’s response – like that of the international community as a whole – has been muted, much like in the last election in 2017.
The prevailing narrative is that this wildfire of violence is something abnormal, that things will soon return to normal and government business will resume. But is this a lie we have chosen to believe for too long?
The past few weeks have seen flare-ups of election-related violence in all parts of the country. Counting centers in two districts of Morobe province were attacked. Voters in East Sepik and Hela provinces destroyed ballot boxes and burned ballot papers. In Enga province, 18 people were killed by gunmen during the vote. Accounts of murders and arson add to the many reports of electoral chaos, monetary policy, ballot boxes “hijacked” by candidates and their supporters, and scrutineers harassed and prevented from doing their job.
Speaking at a public forum on Thursday, Dame Meg Taylor, a PNG leader, told the story of women from a Highland village who got up early to vote, waiting patiently at polling stations for a few hours before officials arrive. They went early so they could vote safely and without intimidation from the crowds, but even these precautions failed as they were chased away by a group of armed young men.
The country’s political leaders just don’t seem to take it seriously. James Marape, the country’s caretaker prime minister, held a press conference earlier in the week in which he referred to ‘trouble’ and ‘trouble’, instead of acknowledging what it was – uncontrolled riots, wanton violence, reports of abandoned bodies, leaked photos of rape victims, vehicles attacked by mobs of teenagers, and more. In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Marape said he was “aware of these issues”.
The citizens of Papua New Guinea express deep distress at what this violence reveals about the state of democracy and the rise of tribalism and patriarchy in their country. Some conclude that a tipping point has been reached, a point of violence and insecurity that was unthinkable when the country celebrated its independence nearly 50 years ago.
The violence associated with these elections is deeply embedded in the country’s governance institutions. Last week, the police commissioner observed that it is the candidates themselves who are responsible for inciting electoral violence in Enga. He observed that it is “sickening” that the violence comes from highly educated members of the community.
We write these sentences with sadness. We are Australians with a long term interest in PNG. We have enormous respect for Melanesian approaches to governance. We have written about the resilience of Melanesian social structures to overcome the deficiencies of its often hollow and sluggish state institutions. In our own work, we have highlighted the innovative and Herculean ways in which struggling bureaucrats and administrators in public institutions continue to function despite growing resource constraints.
But we also know that what is happening is a manifestation of issues that are hidden in plain sight. This violence is the result of the failure of several governance systems over several years to adequately provide basic services and administration.
The events of the past few weeks have forced us to ask some uncomfortable questions: Have PNG’s institutions of governance been so eroded, and have they lost so much of people’s trust and respect, that people feel have no choice but to take matters into their own hands? Has it come to the point where the losing candidates will send their supporters to cause more chaos and ruin? What does this say about the future of democracy in PNG?
There is a danger that political violence will be used by new leaders to justify a more oppressive state response, leading to dangerous cycles of escalation. It must be resisted.
It is essential that Australian leaders engage seriously with the events of the past few weeks and speak candidly about them to any new leaders who emerge. The true levels of disenfranchisement of the population must not continue to be ignored. A new electoral system is urgently needed. This must both take into account the entire population – the last census was carried out in 2011 – and build a guaranteed place for women in the political system.
Many other changes are needed to rebuild or recreate broken education, health and justice systems that have slowly deteriorated. It will be a long process, but there is a very high risk that it will not even be launched unless courageous leaders inside and outside PNG recognize the magnitude of what is unraveling. currently.
Miranda Forsyth is a professor in the School of Global Regulation and Governance, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.
Gordon Peake is affiliated with the Center for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Studies at Georgetown University