What just happened in PNG?!
A troubling election in difficult times as Beijing creeps closer to the Pacific
26 August 2022
Papua New Guinea’s recent national election has been dubbed ‘the worst’ in its history.
While often synonymous with lawlessness, this year’s polls were delayed due to the pandemic, before suffering from what can only be labelled in the fairest of terms as ‘administrative issues’ – voters missing from rolls, double voting, fraud, and spectacular instances of angry mobs destroying ballots.
Prime Minister James Marape notably received parliamentary endorsement despite 11 seats being in play at the time of the parliamentary vote. By securing 36 seats and, through alliance formation, bringing his Pangu Party’s total numbers to over 80 seats (from a total of 118), the former Prime Minister has once again prevailed.
Equally notable, however, is that not one MP in the chamber voted against Marape’s appointment – a bizarre level of consensus for a nation emerging from extremely contested circumstances.
While reviews will be promised, and Marape has urged national consensus and healing, it will do little to give Papua New Guineans assurance or build trust in their democratic institutions.
Prior to the election, I wrote with some optimism that a strong democratic spirit prevails within the borders of Australia’s closest neighbour – citizens walk and line up for days to wait patiently and cast ballots, consensus-building continues to form a large part of the ‘Big Man’ Melanesian culture, and PNG has enjoyed an unbroken continuity in its elections. Through a wider lens, PNG has also maintained its Westminster scaffolding, not succumbed to authoritarian impulses nor suffered military coups or state collapse.
These are elements from which some positivity can be derived. However, PNG’s 2022 elections do show that the nation has turned a corner in a number of concerning ways.
First is PNG’s leadership culture. Many observers note the role of PNG’s politicians is now titled overwhelmingly toward being ‘walking ATMs’, for example, and not lawmakers – to build patronage networks, in other words, and to not solve policy challenges.
This trend has arguably become more intensified and embedded. It is also, to say the least, entirely troubling, especially as PNG needs good leaders and even better ideas to challenge its crumbling infrastructure and threadbare hospitals.
Second, PNG’s disruptive election – and its equally disruptive politics – has only driven further incoherence toward its national policy aspirations. Around ten years ago, under the leadership of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill – a figure still hovering over the halls of PNG’s parliament – a sense of strategic momentum seemed to catch in PNG. The nation was beginning to think about its role in ‘the Asian century’ and articulating strategic ambitions beyond its borders – welcomed elements that lifted PNG’s gaze from its fragmented day-to-day politics.
Such vision and aspiration is now much less clear. To be fair, the pandemic threw the previous Marape government into a tailspin, adding pressure on an already fickle health system. But Marape’s previous mandate – in his words to ‘take back PNG’ – was never entirely clear in terms of consistency or deliverables, even prior to the pandemic.
More will need to be done by his new alliance to show how PNG will seize strategic opportunities in the wake of Covid and in the service of Papua New Guineans, especially as Beijing expands its reach within PNG and across the South Pacific.
The third trend in PNG is an obvious disillusion in the electoral process – a temperament that will only cascade unless serious effort is made to strengthen the systems in place. ‘The more cynical and disillusioned voters feel now,’ ANU researcher Terence Wood writes. ‘The worse behaviour is likely to be in 2027.’
Marape and the PNG government will need to work hard to restore trust in PNG’s electoral institutions. But so much will need to be done between now and 2027 to simply restore faith in PNG’s democracy.
Australia, with its own new Prime Minister, will look on. But it’ll be up to Papua New Guinea’s leaders to reverse these trends and deliver some optimism back to a country desperately in need.