Improving elections in PNG

(image: Terence Wood)
(image: Terence Wood)

As I wrote in my previous post, the 2017 elections in Papua New Guinea fell far short of what the people of PNG deserve. In the previous post I also explained the central cause of electoral problems in PNG: a voter-politician relationship that provides little incentive for politicians to care about well-run elections.

This particular dynamic isn’t likely to change soon. This isn’t a counsel of despair though. The relationship isn’t wholly deterministic. Papua New Guinea’s next elections can be better. Here are some suggestions for what can be done. They aren’t aimed at any one in particular. Some could be championed by donors, but others will be better driven by Papua New Guinea’s domestic reformers. Papua New Guinea has a strong and vibrant civil society, and it will have a crucial role to play in improving elections.

A crucial start will be to press the government to adequately fund the electoral processes. Good elections can’t be run on the cheap. But PNG’s political dynamics mean politicians won’t focus on resourcing national electoral infrastructure unless they’re pushed. The government also needs to adequately resource the parts of the legal system that deal with electoral petitions and similar matters. If the courts aren’t functioning or are taking years to hear cases, dishonest candidates have a lot less to fear. If they’re running well, the consequences of electoral malfeasance will become a stronger deterrent.

Also, push for transparency in all aspects of electoral process itself. As I said in my previous blog, the least transparent parts of elections are often the worst. How was the roll compiled and cleaned? Your guess is as good as mine. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the next election the entire roll (or at the very least ward totals) should be published online, and then republished at each stage of the modification or tidying process. No need for fancy widgets; simple PDF files will do. The same process should be repeated with ballot paper distribution. Let’s know in advance exactly how many ballot papers are intended for each polling station. If illegal manipulation of the roll occurs, as was alleged in 2017, it will be easily spotted. If genuine accidents occur, they will also be spotted. Think of it as crowd-sourcing electoral quality. Speaking of crowd-sourcing, a government commitment not to needlessly silence civil society through court cases is essential too. Except in very limited circumstances, democracies allow free speech. They benefit from it as well.

Then make sure all full election results are made available in a simple form that lends itself to analysis. Jon Fraenkel has already argued for this and I agree. Obviously, as a political scientist who wants to make sure PNG’s electoral history is available to its people, I would like to keep the PNG Election Results Database current. But, more importantly, full results allow for double-checking. As it is, as Jon pointed out, the results aren’t kept secret from candidates. They all have agents gathering them during counting. So why not share this information with civil society, the public and researchers? I’m hopeful this will still happen this election. In the future it ought to as a matter of course.

Getting rid of one-day polling in the Highlands would be a good idea too. It serves no purpose other than to allow some politicians a head start in the government formation process. Polling staggered over many days would allow a stronger security presence. PNG’s police and security forces aren’t perfect, but they are better than polling stations controlled by candidates’ supporters. When supporters control polling stations, it is much easier to pressure polling officials. It is also much easier to prevent other candidates’ scrutineers from witnessing what goes on. This is a problem because having many witnesses with different political allegiances makes it harder to cheat. A stronger security presence would also make it safer for voters. Getting rid of one-day polling in the Highlands won’t solve all of the region’s electoral issues, but it will help.

Empowering the Electoral Advisory Committee and guaranteeing the resources and information it needs is another good idea. The Committee could serve as a powerful check on malpractice, but only if it is given real power to do so.

Finally, be very wary of snake-oil salesmen who promise easy solutions through electronic voting or biometric registration. Technology can help with electoral quality but only when it is accompanied by adequate capacity in the actual electoral system (as well as pesky things like electricity). Elsewhere, where technology has outpaced capacity, the results have been very poor. There’s no reason to think the problems that bedevilled PNG’s 2017 elections will be solved by technology. There is, on the other hand, plenty of cause for believing that these problems would bring down a high-tech electoral system. Fix the fundamentals first.

Bloggers aren’t meant to be humble, but I’m humble enough to admit my suggestions could be mistaken. If you think so, please let me know. Indeed, please discuss and debate as much as you possibly can. The road to better elections in 2022 starts now. And it needs to start with open discussion of what went wrong and what might fix it.

In my next post I will cover what Australia can do to help.

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

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

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Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • Hi Terence,

    your comment in the above article says it all: “But PNG’s political dynamics mean politicians won’t focus on resourcing national electoral infrastructure unless they’re pushed.”

    So who exactly could or should do the ‘pushing’ and what will galvanize this to happen? Certainly not any succinct and insightful comment from our PM or Foreign Minister who were significantly silent over the rorting and corrupt practices reported by many during the general election. Why for instance, was the PM declared a winner before the final results of all the seats were known?

    As there is now another five years to cement those in control in place and they’re very happy with the results of the election ‘Tenkyu tumas’, so why change?

    ‘Maski, larim istap’, could well be echoing around PNG parliament’s corridors power for the foreseeable future when the question about resourcing the Electoral Commission might possibly come up.

    If the Census books are now a creative nonsense and no one really knows who is on the electoral roll, how can there ever be any real accountability or responsibility? Either you have a system that works or you don’t. Axiomatically, there can be no half measures.

    Aren’t we now really debating a totally unbelievable dream?

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t think we’re debating a totally unbelievable dream. I agree there are many problems, but there are also many, many people within PNG who would like positive change, and many trying to bring it. Recall that there was a time that politics in most OECD countries was heavily clientelist and very corrupt. Change is possible, I think.

      I also think incremental improvements are useful, that’s how most change occurs. Systems work or fail to varying degrees. Indeed, electoral issues varied by degree around PNG in the last election. If PNG’s elections are to improve it will be slowly over time. That said, I agree with you a good roll is a sina qua non for electoral quality. I also agree that the absence of good census data (as well as HIES and DHS data) is a real issue for just about everything. Data are a problem in most parts of the Pacific. Questions need to be asked about why this remains an ongoing issue region-wide.

      With respect to your question about who should do the pushing for better election: I think most will have to come from within. I think that’s the source of almost all transformation. As I said above, while I share your appreciation of the problems, I am also impressed by the commitment to positive change within PNG.

      Like you, I think Australia has a role to play, although I don’t think it will be the main driver. Like you, I wish Australia’s politicians were performing better in this area though. My broader comments on what I think Australia should do are here.


  • Thanks Terence

    I would still argued that problems in PNG election is not to do with election process like LPV or FPTP systems or one day polling or biometric registration. Its none of these and others that people who were not on the ground seeing the campaign and polling making suggestions; are more of a common sense of understanding what supposed to be right as free and fair election and what it is not. We cannot blame the election systems and regulations, it is a matter of personality and embedded in the Melanesian way of living that needs to change; you need to explore more to understand not by looking from the fringes of what you read and saw in the media.

    You referred to fixing the fundamentals first, what are you referring to: For me as a man on the ground, addressing fundamental issues are; (1) one person one vote, (2) no votes buying, (3) no undue influence on voters, (4) minimize localized campaign and voting (5) bribery to persons directly involved in the local campaigns, pollings and countings..etc. These issues exist during FPTP system and even under LPV, nothing changed but today it is getting worse into the formal system and people in authorities tend to nurtured that. How are we going to improve on that is the question and it does not require a new set of system or laws, just a simple change on attitudes and character is the solution.

    We must also not forget that the fundamental issues discussed above is embedded into the way Melanesians conduct their lives-way of living, eg. Localized campaign and polling for a candidate, you cannot changes it, it was there in FPTP system and still trailing in LPV system.

    What was not seen before and seen today is the use of huge amount of cash by candidates in election (apart from the cost of campaign, polling and counting) that ends up in the hands of voters, election officials and those in the system overseeing the election. Do you see anything wrong with that, its part of Melanesian way of sharing and inducing others to maximize ones chances over the others, however it is seen as the intent of manipulating the outcome of election. That is our concern as it brings a lot of chaos. For example, currently the problems in SHP, you go down further you will see exactly what is described here.

    My views on the ground seeing the last seven past PNG elections, we just need people to understand what is public/common thing from private attributes, and being a politician or getting one to be a politician is a seasonal event and not a career job or not design for a particular ethnic group or person. The intrinsic value of Melanesian way that seems to be embedded into the Western democratic system of election needs to be re-looked at and some local options would hold key to some solutions.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for a good comment. Like you I don’t think biometric voting will make any difference. Like you I don’t think the electoral system played a major role in most of the issues that occurred in 2017 (though Bal has an interesting point about vote buying).

      I agree with your 5 points too (although I think there are many other problems in addition to these 5). My focus is slightly different though: I’m looking at feasible changes that might help reduce some of the issues. Transparency might reduce the effects of bribery for example.

      The one area where I disagree with you is with respect to whether these are uniquely Melanesian problems. All of the problems we’ve discussed can be found in many parts of the world, and can also be found in the history of countries–like the UK–that currently run quite good elections. I think the issues are more universal and are to do with power, wealth and human nature. As a consequence I think the solutions tend to be associated with placing effective checks in the formal and informal electoral system.

      I’d also add that there’s a lot of variation in electoral quality across and within the different countries of Melanesia. I think there’s a lot to be learnt from why this occurs.

      Thanks again for an interesting, thought-provoking comment.


  • Thank you Terence, some important insights for PNG government and partners to consider. The efficacy of the LPV system is also one to be looked at for future elections i.e. current structure directly encourages vote-buying.

    • Thanks Bal, that’s a really interesting point. My sense is that their are pros and cons associated with LPV. You highlight an important drawback. Another one, in my opinion, is that LPV makes the counting process much more complex and time consuming. I definitely support your idea of looking into LPV more. Terence

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