In Papua New Guinea’s Elections, It’s Familiar Faces—and Problems

In Papua New Guinea’s Elections, It’s Familiar Faces—and Problems
Prime Minister James Marape of of Papua New Guinea addresses the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2021, New York (Pool photo by Peter Foley via AP).
It’s a case of new election, same old faces in Papua New Guinea, where voting for the Pacific Islands nation’s general elections began on July 4. Nevertheless, turnout is expected to be relatively strong: Half the population of about 10 million is projected to head to the polls over the coming weeks, with some areas having almost three weeks to vote due to the remoteness of many communities. Incumbent Prime Minister James Marape, who heads the Pangu Party, is facing off against Peter O’Neill, the man he replaced in May 2019, when O’Neill resigned rather than face a no-confidence vote after eight scandal-plagued years in power. Marape is at least assured of retaining his seat, having been reelected member of parliament for Tari-Pori in the election’s first declared result. Tragically, Sam Basil, who had the potential to shake up the two-horse race from his position as deputy prime minister, died in a car crash in May. Though there is no evidence Basil’s death was related to the election, violence has bedeviled the campaign so far, leaving more than two dozen people dead. Three parliamentary candidates have been arrested for murder or accused of the same. A candidate for a provincial governorship survived an assassination attempt. And a district election supervisor was shot and hospitalized. Such turbulence is indicative of endemic corruption and the importance of controlling public finances in a country reliant on government expenditure and the extractive sector for around half of its GDP. Following two years of pandemic hardship and government failures to convert resource-extraction deals into tangible investments, rural communities are desperate for financial support. Marape was dealt a tough hand in having to steward public finances through the pandemic, but his image suffered from reports he diverted state funds to pursue a domestically developed miracle cure for COVID-19, even as local news broadcast images of bodies piling up in hospitals. Officially, PNG has recorded about 44,000 COVID-19 cases and 662 deaths, though the true figures are certainly much higher given widespread lack of testing and chronic underfunding of health facilities. Vaccine coverage remains startlingly low at just over 3 percent of the population. However, Marape is unlikely to be judged for his performance guarding against a disease that, thanks to rampant online disinformation, many Papua New Guineans do not believe exists. Instead, influential business interests will weigh up whether he is making progress on his 2019 pledge to “Take back PNG” from malicious foreign influences, and ensure local governments and landowners receive a larger share of the benefits of the country’s vast mineral wealth. In February, the state negotiating team secured a government stake of 63 percent in a deal to develop the long-stalled P’nyang natural gas field deal, improving on the roughly 50 percent stake in a previous liquefied natural gas project negotiated under O’Neill. But this economic win may be a case of too little, too late. Marape is also hamstrung by a botched attempt to nationalize the country’s most significant gold mine, Porgera, in April 2020, which led to it closing, followed by protracted legal battles with the operator, Canada’s Barrick Gold. The mine remains dormant for now, and while the state negotiated a superior benefits-sharing agreement with Barrick Gold in 2021, PNG has missed out on vital royalty and foreign exchange revenues amid a period of historically high bullion prices, something O’Neill has not hesitated to emphasize. “The shutdown was part of Marape’s ‘Take Back PNG’ campaign,” he said in June, “but so far there are no winners in this shamble of a negotiation for a better deal.” As a result of fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, economic activity fell 3.5 percent in 2020 and barely recovered at all last year. The closure of Porgera was responsible for the loss of about 1.5 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank, which nevertheless forecast GDP growth of 4 percent this year, led by the extraction sector. Public debt, which was in part responsible for O’Neill’s ouster three years ago, has since ballooned from about 35 percent of GDP to more than 50 percent in 2022, and parts of the current budget remain unfunded. O’Neill is thus counting on popular impatience with Marape to bring him back to power, and he has vowed to rejuvenate three major resource projects, including Porgera, within his first 100 days in office.

Marape will be judged on whether he is making progress on his 2019 pledge to “Take back PNG” from foreign influences and ensure the population benefits from the country’s vast mineral wealth.

O’Neill, who heads the People’s National Congress, has also marshaled an experienced Cabinet-in-waiting, which includes Marape’s former running mate and coalition partner Davis Steven. He has promised to create 500,000 jobs, inject funding into small and medium-sized enterprises and agricultural cooperatives, reinvigorate national infrastructure—including widening access to power, water and sanitation—and spend 1 billion kina, or around $280 million, on health facilities. Marape, on the other hand, is emphasizing his efforts to expand PNG’s base of micro and small and medium-sized enterprises by holistically growing agriculture and tourism businesses through the provision of key infrastructure. For now, Marape is considered the favorite, but he may emerge significantly weakened following the horse trading among coalition partners and political favors that will likely ensue once the count is in. That said, voter fraud is set to play an outsized role in this election. Reports of vote buying and bribery of election officials abound, and there are concerns that funding-related problems in updating the electoral roll may deny eligible voters the chance to cast ballots, while providing bad actors the opportunity to enfranchise the deceased. Last weekend, Marape was also forced to distance himself from an incident involving a suitcase containing $644,000 in cash found on a charter plane that landed in his native Hela province. His son, who was on the plane, was taken into custody. Several changes to key election dates in the run-up to polling, including the timing of the single day allocated for voting in Port Moresby, the capital, have done little to bolster the public mood. As such, the Supreme Court may have something to say about the validity of this election once the dust has settled. In the meantime, a 10,000-strong security presence is overseeing the proceedings, raising fears that the army and police may be used to intimidate voters and candidates. There are particular concerns about the intimidation of women voters, who for the first time this year will be able to use separate voting booths, with the hope that this will encourage female participation, which is typically low. In fact, PNG currently has one of the lowest rates of female political representation in the world and not a single woman in parliament, a dismal status quo that looks set to continue beyond this month’s elections. Just 167 out of the 3,625 candidates standing for office are women, and the shelving of plans to reserve five parliamentary places for women at this year’s polls means that only a handful of female candidates have a chance of winning one of the 118 seats up for grabs. In terms of global geopolitics, whoever assumes the office of prime minister will find himself at the center of a tussle for influence between the U.S. and Australia on one side, and China on the other. In April, concerns over Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands region reached fever pitch upon the signing of a security pact between Beijing and the Solomon Islands, which included provisions for China to make ship visits to Honiara. Although many analysts are skeptical that China has the capability to project naval power deep into the Pacific, that has not stopped the Australian media from whipping up a firestorm around the idea of a Chinese naval base potentially being built in PNG. In broad strokes, most observers expect that a Marape victory would result in PNG moving closer to Australia, while O’Neill, who favors “looking north,” will seek warmer ties with Beijing. But whatever the outcome, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent whistle-stop tour of eight Pacific Island nations, combined with this week’s announcement that Washington will be tripling aid to the strategically located region, suggests that PNG is in line to benefit from great power efforts to cement local influence. Whether Papuans themselves see any of those benefits is another story. At the very least, high participation in the ongoing election makes clear that voters still want their voices to be heard in PNG’s vibrant yet flawed democracy.

David Green is a London-based journalist and editor. He has extensive experience reporting from China and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific on technological, economic and political developments in the region.

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