By MARTYN NAMORONG – PNG Attitude Blog
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PORT MORESBY – Papua New Guinea goes to a national election in June with many people pinning their hopes on the outcome of the polls.
The election is pivotal, not just in terms of bread and butter socio-economic issues but also in dealing with a final political settlement for Bougainville, which in a 2019 referendum opted overwhelmingly for independence from PNG.
The next government will have to put PNG on the road to economic recovery, settle matters with Bougainville and continue to deal with Asia-Pacific regional powers, including the spat over the election of the general-secretary of the Pacific Islands Forum.
The political riots in Solomon Islands, which led to Australia sending a small task force of police, drew PNG into the geopolitical tug of war between China and the West.
Will geopolitics influence the outcome of the June election? Will Papua New Guineans go to the polls conscious of the broader national and international ramifications of the choices they make?
Or will they vote for beer, lamb flaps and loyalty to their clans and tribes?
PNG has and unbroken election record having regularly held democratic elections every five years since 1977.
At independence in 1975, the new nation inherited a Westminster system of government although it has a unicameral parliament unlike Britain and Australia which have upper houses.
Nevertheless King Henry III and Simon de Montfort would probably recognise PNG’s frenetic parliament which regularly goes into fits whenever a new government is being formed.
Likewise, the knights in medieval England would probably feel at ease amongst PNG’s political candidates and their supporters as they clash over who should take the seat of power.
It is likely that these 2022 elections will be more corrupt and violent than previous elections as some of the characters who won with very dubious numbers last time are now in charge of the country.
Preparations for the elections have been slow. The first National Election Steering Committee meeting held in June last year was not attended by anyone from the Electoral Commission or the PNG Defence Force.
At a conference in November, provincial police commanders raised concerns about inactive Provincial Election Steering Committees and the government’s failure to update the common roll.
The national government has allocated K600 million for the conduct of the election.
Australia has traditionally offered support, however this time around its role will be under much scrutiny as it must not be seen to favour an outcome that aligns with Western interests.
PNG’s current political divide between former prime minister Peter O’Neill and current prime minister James Marape traverses the geopolitical fault-line between China and the West with O’Neill’s infrastructure projects financed by China and the Marape’s Covid response largely financed by the West.
Whilst PNG’s elections can be unpredictable, both men are likely to be top contenders for prime minister after the election.
Marape came to power with a nationalist agenda to ‘Take Back PNG’, but many people feel that, as he nears the end of his tenure, their lives have gone backward.
A recent household survey conducted by Unicef and the World Bank found that over 98% of households experienced financial anxiety with over 60% reporting that their incomes had remained static.
Of the 26,554 Grade 12 students who graduated last year, 11,373 (43%) find themselves with no government offers for further education.
Whoever becomes the next prime minister will have to contend with the effects of Covid-19 on the economy while trying to ensure the wellbeing of citizens.
There will be big challenges in health, law and order, and the economy.
But the biggest challenge will be seen soon when schools deal with the influx of new students brought into the system by the government’s free education policy.
PNG’s poorly funded schools will be overflowing with students as a result of a government policy created out of political expediency.
PNG’s eleventh parliament will shape its post-Covid and post-Bougainville worlds.
The people of Bougainville will be anxious to know about their political future (they’ve set a deadline of 2025) while the rest of PNG will see for themselves whether this national election will deliver its promises or just be another disappointment.
Workers who carry a disproportionate amount of the nation’s tax burden will be wondering if there is any relief in sight.
And the world will be watching whether PNG turns East or remains with the West.
The new government will have to send the right signals about foreign direct investment in PNG.
Exploration activities in PNG’s resource sector have not recovered from the downturn triggered by the global financial crisis 15 years ago ago.
This uncertainty has been exacerbated by erratic policy behaviour including expropriating the Ok Tedi mine, dishonouring resource agreements and shutting down the Porgera mine.
Whilst the nationalist stance taken is laudable, PNG needs to be mindful that whilst it does own the resources, it does not have the capital needed to extract them.
Increasing the country’s risk profile does no one any favours and perhaps 2022 and beyond is a time for toning down the nationalist rhetoric.
Growth in the non-resource sector will continue to be impeded by legacy issues, mainly under-investment, and environmental challenges.
Security challenges brought about by the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and the national elections themselves will continue to affect the country.
These and other issues are not going away in 2022 and the new government will have to provide the nation with some solutions.
For example, whilst access to the electricity grid is expanding, a reliable power supply remains an issue.
The supply of potable water is becoming increasingly unpredictable even in the nation’s capital and will continue to plague urban dwellers.
Poor transport links and difficult terrain limit market access for many rural farmers.
Access to the mobile phone network has greatly improved but costs remain relatively high and internet connections can be unreliable..
The country’s National Research Institute recently published a sobering paper that may help put the events of 2022 into perspective.
The paper contends that many governance issues PNG faces are part of a long process of historical change in the country.
While PNG has defied the odds and not gone along the path of failed states and dictatorships, it has not fully lived up to its full potential.
The paper had a pointed message for those who think the 2022 elections will bring about much-needed change:
“Outsiders often make the assumption that the next change in the cast of characters will bring about more stable, principle-based government.
“Their arrival is anticipated, but hopes of them generating these changes are slowly dashed over time. While the individuals change, the structuring of politics remains the same.
“Too much hope is invested in the idea that the next government will be replete with reformers and will offer a window of opportunity to bring about changes considered desirable.
“Simultaneously and paradoxically, too little time and effort is invested over the long-term in nurturing the network of informal and formal institutions and individuals that do want to solve collective action problems for the public good.”
Martyn Namorong is the Papua New Guinea country contributor for IHS Markit, an information services company providing information, research, analytics and technology to industry customers, financial markets and governments.