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PNG election: Ominous signs of violence

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20 June 2012 12:56

Scott Flower is a McKenzie Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is regularly engaged by multinational companies as a risk management consultant to major resource projects in PNG.

The two-week polling period for the Papua New Guinea national elections begins in 3 days. There are already ominous signs that the intense electoral competition is evolving into what may be the most violent and corrupt elections in the nation's 37-year post-independence history.

Since the start of the 'official' campaigning period just three weeks ago there have been 19 election-related deaths. Historically, the worst violence occurs following the polls, so if this level of pre-polling violence is any indicator, it is likely that this election will surpass the electoral lows of 2002.

Most troubling, there is increasing evidence confirming a shifting pattern of weapons use. In the past, guns were primarily for tribal fights, but now they are used to influence electoral politics, and as the first polling day approaches, the public display of weapons is increasing in an effort to intimidate and cajole voters ahead of ballots boxes arriving.

These are not homemade shot guns but serious automatic weapons. In the village of Angore in Hela province, the owner of a brand new Uzi Pro sub-machinegun (see photo) said his gun 'is for the election, not tribal fighting'. This is not an isolated example; in March 2011 when I was visiting a village close to Angore a man was shot dead with an M16 as a result of tribal fighting.

Recent observations from the field suggest that election candidates are more than ever before acquiring weapons to influence and intimidate. On 12 June Police and PNGDF forces confiscated a cache of illegal weapons from a candidate's home near Mount Hagen. The weapons included a self-loading rifle, a Sig pistol with 29 rounds of ammunition, a box containing 25 buckshot cartridges and a telescope.

Since the Lowy Institute published its policy brief on the foreign support necessary to avert violence in the upcoming elections, New Zealand and Australia have increased their assistance. From an initial offer of two aircraft as part of the Electoral Support Program, Australia and New Zealand have stepped up their support to include 250 military personnel, 13 helicopters and 2 fixed-wing aircraft, civilian technical experts to complete the electoral rolls and train polling officers, and logistics support to help organise the security and transportation of election materials and officials.

However, recent examples of corruption and violence might lead one to conclude that the foreign assistance is too little, and too late to mitigate the further erosion and potential collapse of PNG's electoral integrity and democratic processes.

Intense electoral competition is the key factor driving violence, intimidation and corruption. The 3435 candidates across the country are competing for only 109 111 seats in parliament. The incumbent Chimbu Governor, John Garia, is facing 72 rival candidates, the largest number of challengers in a single electorate in the country.

More candidates than ever have leveraged traditional customary debt networks to fund their electoral campaign, creating a 'win at all costs' environment. Candidates know that if they lose, their inability to repay creditors will, at best, reduce their social status to that of 'rubis man' (tok pisin for rubbish man). At worst, it will trigger customary forms of payback violence which generally escalate into a spiral of tit-for-tat violence.

Increasing levels of political violence and incidents of corruption involving police and PNG Defence Force personnel highlight the tenuous situation PNG faces through this election period. Electoral officials, police and PNGDF personnel are supposed to act in a professional and impartial capacity to ensure electoral integrity. But increasingly, they are observed engaging in local politics and being influenced by tribal links and money. The following events over last three weeks give a taste of what is yet to come:

  • A provincial election manager was arrested for ballot box manipulation; police confiscated alcohol, an unlicensed pistol and K200,000 (US$94,300) cash.
  • A PNGDF officer has managed to ensure he and his troops are deployed to Wabag electorate, where his tribesmen are located, in order to help protect his tribe's ballot boxes.
  • Police reported uncovering a conspiracy involving well funded groups using money to 'bribe security forces personnel' and purchase military, police and correctional service uniforms.
  • Police officers across the highlands have smuggled weapon magazines and ammunition, and smashed unfavoured candidates' posters within their electorates; some police members supported a candidate's attack on a sitting MP.

Last week an article in The Australian detailed how Australia planned to respond to a 'fundamental breakdown of order' in Port Moresby by deploying troops to PNG to evacuate Australians and 'secure the government'. The article further damaged Australia's legitimacy to influence PNG political elites and eroded public support among locals for greater Australian intervention. Whatever happens in PNG this election, it is clear that Australia and other friends of PNG need to revise their strategy if there is any chance of helping the country gain greater stability.

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