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PNG: The counting continues

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12 July 2012 12:32

With counting underway to determine who will be the 111 winners in PNG's national elections, what was predicted to be an excessively violent poll has so far turned out to be relatively smooth. There have been exceptions, notably in the highlands where there were early reports of gunfights at polling stations and stolen empty ballot boxes being returned several hours later filled with 'votes'.

To an outsider, the electoral process has been messy, colourful and loud — all characteristics of PNG's unconventional approach to politics — while the arrest of the high profile Speaker of the House on election-related bribery charges reinforces the image of a country trying hard to stand by its democracy.

Polling in PNG takes two weeks, reflecting the remoteness of many of the country's voters. More than 87% of PNG's population live in rural and remote areas. It's also a reflection of the country's limited capacity to undertake what is essentially a massive, nation-wide logistical exercise stretching already thin election and security resources.

Although 6 July was the official end of the polling period, the deadline has been extended by a week in some of the more remote electorates because of problems delivering ballot boxes and forms on time. Despite this delay, PNG's Electoral Commissioner is confident that counting in all electorates will be completed by the scheduled date of 27 July.

Once the winning candidates are announced, the real counting begins to determine who has the numbers to form government. With a record 3435 candidates and 46 parties contesting 111 seats, it's impossible to predict the outcome. After the last election, in 2007, Sir Michael Somare required a coalition of seven parties plus the support of some independent MPs to become prime minister.

Access to money became an increasingly important factor in recent PNG elections. In this election, some candidates have access to large amounts of cash thanks to the income accruing from the sale of the country's mineral resources at a time of high commodity prices. This income is not being distributed equitably and the country's basic services continue to deteriorate, but it is being used by some political contenders to buy the influence they need to win.

Another important factor in this election is mobile telephony. In the past five years, the mobile phone network has expanded and the proportion of people with phones has grown from 4% to between 30% and 48%. This influences the election in two ways.

Firstly, it has made campaigning considerably easier. Communication between and to the voters has been able to leapfrog over the old, inadequate and largely inaccessible fixed line technology only available in the main urban centres, where just 12% of PNG's population lives. Mobile phones are now used as a means to influence previously inaccessible voters and by voters to inform each other.

The second implication relates to who ultimately forms government. It takes five weeks from the first day of polling to the posting of the results. But even when the results are known, it can take several weeks before a government is formed. This is because no one party is likely to have sufficient numbers to claim government. Instead, deals will need to be brokered to ensure there is sufficient support for what is likely to be a coalition of parties with support from independents.

In the past, the practice has been to physically stop rival parties from getting access to these independents by taking the independents to isolated hotel resorts where brokering and bargaining is carried out over several days. But in the era of mobile telephony there is no benefit to physical isolation, as independents can use mobile phones to bid their price upward among parties competing for their support. In all likelihood, this will raise the cost of doing business for the big parties. The figure currently being bandied about as the price of support is $250,000 but it may go higher.

PNG's sitting Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, has already been declared the winner in his electorate, where counting was completed before the end of the polling period. This early announcement attracted widespread criticism because his was the only electorate to be counted before the end of official polling. But part of the annoyance is because it gives O'Neill a head start in the bidding war for the independents who could be the key to retaining his job.  

Photo by Alexander Rheeney.

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