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Papua New Guinea's Election Is Poles Apart From Our Own

There are 3,322 candidates vieing for just 111 seats.

08/07/2017 8:54 AM AEST | Updated 08/07/2017 1:10 PM AEST
Alexander Rheeney/AFP/GettyImages
30,000 electoral officials are helping the infrastructure poor nation have its ninth election.

Papua New Guinea is just 4km from Australia, but the country's current election shows our democracies are poles apart.

For just the ninth time since it gained independence from Australia in 1975, Papua New Guineans have spent the past two weeks turning out to elect members to the country's single house of parliament.

And there are a lot of candidates. With a population of 8 million, there are 3,332 candidates, 165 of them women, vying for 111 seats. Compare that to Australia, where at the 2016 election there were 994 candidates in the last federal election for 150 seats.

And then there's the process. There's no single polling day in PNG, and a final result won't be known until late July.

So here's your guide to PNG's five-yearly elections.

SO WHY DOES VOTING TAKE (AT LEAST) TWO WEEKS?

Simply put, PNG is one of the most infrastructure-poor nations on earth, and it's a country with some of the toughest natural geographical conditions on the planet. We're talking mountains, valleys and jungles.

PNG, which ranks at 154th place on the UN Human Development index, is home to 8 million people, the vast majority of whom live a subsistence lifestyle in remote villages.

Some are isolated, while some are connected to large towns or cities by cracked, pot-hole ridden roads or bush tracks.

Polling officials often have to fly or even float ballot boxes across unfriendly terrain.

Opposition candidates have accused the Government of interfering with the electoral roll, forcing some provinces -- as well as the capital city Port Moresby -- to briefly postpone voting amid logistical failures last week.

These logistical problems included polling officials going on strike over unpaid allowances, while in the Highlands town of Tari police were reportedly forced to burn excess ballot boxes to prove they wouldn't be used to influence the election outcome.

IT HASN'T BEEN SMOOTH SAILING

Fairfax
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is facing his second election as PM.

This reality exists alongside PNG's abundance in natural resources, and its $20 billion Exxon Mobil LNG plant -- now in its third year of operation.

And the windfalls promised from the development of the multi-billion dollar project have not significantly improved the lives of Papua New Guineans.

And there are indications the frustration is boiling over.

In Tari, in Hela Province, where much of the gas for the project is extracted, voters reportedly threw stones at O'Neill when he visited earlier this year.

The PNG electoral system has had a bit of trouble of its own.

This is the first PNG election where the nation's father of independence, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, will not be running.

The longest serving MP in the commonwealth, he was deposed as PM in 2011 after he left the country for medical reasons in 2011.

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Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare

He returned, and after an almost year long constitutional crisis remained in parliament until his retirement late last year.

Former Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta -- whose name adorns central Government offices -- reportedly found his name vanished from the electoral roll when he tried to vote last week.

O'Neill reportedly rejected opposition criticism of the Electoral Commission's integrity after it called for results in O'Neill's Highlands Ialibu-Pangia seat not to be declared first, as it could give his People's National Congress party an advantage.

"Let the Electoral Commission get on with its job, and in that process, these failed leaders of the past must stop trying to tarnish constitutional office holders," O'Neill said.

International observers have acknowledged problems during the election.

"There has clearly been problems ... but to be fair, in our observation, the Government has endeavoured to address these," said Sir Anand Satyanand, chairman of the Commonwealth observer group.

Australia for its part is helping with election logistics, with PNG's The National newspaper reporting Australia helped train the more than 30,000 elections workers, as well as lending planes and helicopters to help deliver more than 100,000 pounds of election materials to regional hubs.

WHO IS GOING TO BE PNG'S NEXT PM?

O'Neill currently occupies the top job, and he's tipped to retain it after the election. A year ago, O'Neill's government was boasting it had the support of 80 members of the 111-seat parliament.

O'Neill -- a former treasurer and opposition leader -- has been in power since August 2011, when he was elected to the top job by parliament after it dumped former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare following a vote.

That sparked a constitutional crisis -- which briefly left the country with with two prime ministers, two governors-general and two police chiefs. O'Neill came out on top, winning the Prime Ministership again after the 2012 election.

But predicting the outcome of the notoriously volatile PNG election can be a tough task.

With 44 political parties, MPs usually form coalition governments which have historically been unstable and shaky. O'Neill's PNC has had a large numerical advantage since the 2012 election, but these numbers have been in flux over the years.

Correspondents in Port Moresby will be keeping a keen eye on politicians' whereabouts following the vote count, with "camps" forming to give an indication of who might come out on top.

In 2012, supporters of O'Neill flew to Alotau in the country's south to form the agreement to form government. In the five years since, O'Neill has managed to broadly keep his coalition together amid allegations of corruption and run-ins with the police.

AFP/Getty Images
Tari wigman Nelson Yote (R) from Arou village checks his facial paint in a mirror fragment before performing at Papua New Guinea's Parliament House in Port Moresby, to welcome the newly elected members of government in 2007

Troubles mounted in Port Moresby last year, when police opened fire on students at the University of PNG who were marching against O'Neill. It sparked a vote of no confidence which O'Neill easily won.

This year, O'Neill's most prominent opposition is in the form of Don Polye, a former treasurer in O'Neill's government. Polye has dogged his former boss over financial and corruption issues since he became opposition leader in 2014.

SO WHAT'S NEXT?

We wait. Until July 24 when the writs are returned. It's a decision that has a lot riding on it. PNG's economy is in trouble after a collapse in resource prices hit the economy hard, forcing O'Neill to defend his record at the start of the poll.

But it isn't just the country's financial woes that will keep the politicians busy.

Next year, PNG is expected to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum for the first time, an event hailed by O'Neill as bringing to PNG the exposure the country needs for economic growth.

The forum will see leaders and representatives from 21 Pacific-rim nations -- including Australia and the U.S. -- arrive in PNG for the multi-day conference.

And the nation is facing its own territorial challenges. In 2019, the autonomous region of Bougainville is set to hold a referendum on its independence from PNG, almost 20 years since the bloody civil war which claimed an estimated 20,000 lives.


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