What’s the matter with elections in PNG?

Election Day 2017 (image: Terence Wood)
Election Day 2017 (image: Terence Wood)
Written by Terence Wood

There are still reports to be written, official verdicts to be made, and electoral petitions to be heard. But media reporting alone is enough for the most important point to be clear: the 2017 elections in Papua New Guinea were not good enough. There were major roll issues, there were likely cases of fraud, and electoral violence is ongoing. Voters deserve better.

The first step in making sure improvements occur is diagnosing the issues. That’s what I’m going to do in this post. I’m going to look at the structural drivers of PNG’s electoral problems. I’m not here to level accusations at individuals. If people have committed crimes they should be tried. Yet many electoral officials worked hard during the 2017 elections. And most of the country’s citizens wanted nothing more than to exercise their democratic rights. But the elections went awry regardless. And 2017 isn’t the first time PNG has had major problems with its elections. So I’m not going to get personal. Instead, I’m going to provide a social scientist’s answer to the question, ‘what’s the matter with elections in PNG?’

The central problem is political. And simple. Most of Papua New Guinea’s members of parliament don’t care how well elections are run. Because of this, no political pressure is placed on the Electoral Commission to perform. It isn’t given the resources it needs either. In 2016, it was reported that the PNG government had only budgeted half as much for the running of the 2017 elections as had been spent on the previous ones. Savings are always good, but half price elections are impossible. No government concerned about good elections would have budgeted so little.

Why aren’t most politicians in PNG concerned about electoral quality? The answer lies in the voter-politician relationship. In Papua New Guinea, most voters vote for the candidate who they think is most likely to help them, their family, or their community. They don’t vote on the basis of national issues. Voting this way isn’t unique to PNG. It happens all over the developing world. You can find it in the recent histories of many OECD countries too. PNG’s voters aren’t doing anything wrong when they vote in search of localised or personalised assistance. Most have acute and immediate needs. And most have never seen those needs met by national policy. Under these circumstances, voting in search of direct assistance is perfectly reasonable. It’s what I would do.

Unfortunately, however, because candidates want to be elected, and MPs re-elected, voting for personal or local benefits has a harmful side-effect. It causes MPs to focus on channelling state resources directly to their supporters. They do this at the expense of national governance and national issues. Elections are a national issue. Politicians have no political reason for caring about well-run elections. They’re not going to get punished at the ballot box if they mess up. Indeed, if anything sitting MPs — as powerful political actors — are likely to benefit from poorly run elections; they’re much easier to subvert locally. And so most of PNG’s politicians proactively ignore the task of strengthening the country’s electoral infrastructure. Which is why the Electoral Commission ended up starved of resources during the same political term that the District Services Improvement Program (government money which MPs can effectively lavish on their supporters) increased substantially.

It’s true that some politicians in Papua New Guinea have, at times, worked hard to improve the country’s electoral infrastructure. And others have tried particularly hard to make it worse. PNG’s politicians have some agency and so deserve to be credited or blamed for their actions. But the broader dynamic I have described is always present; it has a broad effect on political actions and — at a national level — it is a strong force working against well-run elections.

Amidst the overarching effects of this national dynamic there is important variation. Some parts of the electoral process work better than others. And some parts of the country have better elections than others. Nothing is perfect, but counting is better than roll compilation, for example. And elections are worse in the Highlands than in other parts of the country. I’ve written about this in depth in this discussion paper. For now I want to highlight two important lessons from the variation. Generally, the best aspects of elections are the most transparent aspects. Counting is usually OK (albeit slow) because all candidates have scrutineers in counting places. This transparency makes it harder, although not impossible, to cheat. Also, elections are usually better in places where power is diffuse. In electorates where candidates can muster the power to capture polling stations, polling is — unsurprisingly — worse. But in other parts of the country it’s simply not possible for candidates to do this. When it isn’t, most candidates will have scrutineers watching polling, and brazen cheating is less likely.

Even in the best parts of the electoral process, in the best parts of the country, matters aren’t perfect. But they are good enough. Overall, PNG’s 2017 elections weren’t good enough. The question now is how to take what we know of the dynamics of the country’s electoral problems to improve elections in the future. This will be the subject of my next two posts.

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.

This post is the first in a three part series; you can read the other two posts here and here.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. He heads our program of research into Australian and New Zealand aid. Terence’s research interests include aid policy, the politics of aid, and governance in developing countries. He has recently finished his PhD, studying voter behaviour in the Solomon Islands elections. Prior to commencing PhD study Terence worked for the New Zealand government aid program.


  • Hi Terence,

    Many thanks for a great series of blogs on PNG’s elections. I’m not sure you’re right to lay PNG’s electoral ailments at the door of patronage politics. It is no doubt true that “Most of Papua New Guinea’s members of parliament don’t care how well elections are run.” But is this because “most voters vote for the candidate who they think is most likely to help them, their family, or their community”? We can think of other countries that have stronger parties and national policy debates, and yet unfair elections. Think of Malaysia, and think of aspects of US elections. There is also at least one country I know of that is typified by patronage politics, but that has pretty good elections, and that is India.

    The primary motive for politicians when it comes to elections is to win them, and if they can get away with manipulating the process to improve their chances, they will. A counterveiling force is required for good elections.

    Based on my admittedly limited knowledge, having a strong and independent electoral commission seems really important for good electoral quality. Why is it that some countries have very strong and independent electoral commissions (Australia, India), and other countries don’t (Malaysia, India)? I don’t know if there is an answer to that question. Perhaps it comes down to difficult-to-generalize differences in constitutions, traditions, and personalities. But until PNG’s Electoral Commission shows greater strength and independence — that is, more willingness to stand up against the politicians — I am skeptical that we will see improvements in the quality of PNG’s elections.


    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Stronger parties are probably a necessary condition for programmatic politics (it is hard to see how political collective action problems will be overcome without them). However, they aren’t, on their own, a sufficient condition. Many countries with stronger parties than PNG (think Latin America) still have clientelist politics. A particular type of political party is required to shift away from clientelist politics: one that is (at least somewhat) national in scope and also born of reforming social movements.

      With respect to the quality of elections. There are two major causes of national level electoral issues. 1. Active attempts to capture the system nationally (think Malaysia) 2. Neglect (think PNG).

      In a country as ethnically fragmented as PNG, it is very hard for national capture to occur. As a consequence, what we typically see is neglect as politicians in a clientelist polity focus either on winning support through patronage spending or through cheating at a local level. (It is possible there were some attempts at actively undermining national electoral infrastructure in 2017 to make localised cheating easier. But the situation, while worrying, still wasn’t analogous to Malaysia).

      Some of the cross-country empirical work on electoral quality finds an association between independent electoral bodies and better quality elections. (There is a lot of debate on this though.) I think a well-resourced and de facto independent electoral commission would help with electoral quality in PNG (the PNGEC is already de jure independent; this doesn’t seem to have helped it). The question, however, is why doesn’t PNG have a strong independent electoral commission already? The answer to that is, I think, the political dynamic I describe in my post.

      Should donors and domestic civil society organisations push for a better-functioning, better resourced electoral commission? Sure. I say as much in the other two posts. But the electoral commission’s problems didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Nor can a better electoral commission be magicked into existence independent of the traits of PNG’s broader political economy.

      Thanks for your comment.


  • Thank you Terence for your views on PNG 2017 national election

    Your views that the 2017 is not good enough is not only correct but also much worse in this election. As for an educated local experience person going through; the campaign, the polling, counting and the declaration of winners using and abusing the conventional election laws and guidelines covering this important democratic process, I would say this 2017 is much worse than the previous elections.

    We should not blame the legal elements governing the election process or the institutions mandated to run the 2017 election. As a man on the ground, I saw there is no anomalies with that. The only problem is that the process is driven by personalities of power brokers in authorities and by trend of the prevailing circumstances/situations over the last few years.

    People in authority are not doing what they are mandated to delivery but only serving a few people interests, and in doing so has caused problems across the whole process of election and democracy. The recent 2017 election is the 10th, and there should be little doubt if it is going to be a failed election, rather it should be a successful one.

    We are willing to support any post-election research in the future as a man on the ground and went through the 2017 election.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m particularly interested to hear your comment in the third paragraph about personalities and power brokers. That makes sense. Thank you for sharing it.


      • Thanks

        I have seen and witnessed the unseen and unreported side of this 2017 election unprecedented and wonder what the future holds in 5 years time for another PNG election, maybe time will tell

  • Typically wishy washy, platitudinous, feel-good gibberish. Next time start with the 80 election deaths (likely to be more from continuing violence), retributative rape of girls, murder of policemen by candidates and their supporters, etc etc. Then move on to blatant fixing and manipulation of EC official appointments by candidates and parties, examples of roll-fixing on a grand scale, voting-day violence, intimidation and outright fraud, the rigging of counting by EC officials and candidates, manipulation of declarations and return of writs … I could go on but it’s too depressing.

    • With respect, I must disagree with your characterisation of this blog, Mark. I think this blog addressed the basic facts surrounding the conduct of the 2017 PNG election (that you write of) and did so pointedly, whilst maintaining an objective, academic and dispassionate character – as one would expect from a professional social scientist writing in a credible forum such as Devpolicy. Perhaps you were looking for a more polemical piece? If so, I can understand that, having seen the 2017 elections firsthand and being personally concerned with what happened. But such writing is best left for other forums. There’s more than enough emotion surrounding the conduct of the 2017 elections already, and there’s an important place for dispassionate well-informed analysis, to try and get to the bottom of what went wrong. And this article in my view does that very well and is a very good contribution to the conversation.

  • Thank you Dr Wood for this very good commentary. In my view you have correctly pointed out that the central and key cause of state incapacity in PNG is political, and the authors of this incapacity are the central political powerbrokers in PNG, many of whom are senior members of government. And they act so deliberately, because state incapacity directly benefits their personal and private interests. Following, I have one question for you – is it possible that the political decision to decentralise PNGEC administrative control over the election was made so that local subversion of formal electoral law and processes would be made easier?

    • Hi Kurt,
      Thank you for the question. It’s a very interesting one. It’s still not exactly clear to me what in practice was decentralised vis a vis some previous elections (although some additional decentralisation did occur). Certainly, you can imagine decentralisation having an impact of the sort you describe (regardless of whether the impact was or was not intended).

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