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Papua New Guinea Poll ‘Free but not Fair’

Voters queuing up at a polling station in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS.

PORT MORESBY, Sep 1 2012 (IPS) - Papua New Guinea’s national election, which ended a ten-month leadership duel between National Alliance Party and veteran post-Independence leader Sir Michael Somare, and Peter O’Neill, leader of the People’s National Congress Party, has come to a close with O’Neill announcing his new coalition government.

But the success of ‘free and fair’ polling has been debated in this developing Pacific Island nation of almost seven million, located east of Indonesia and north of Australia. Independent observers report serious concerns about malpractice at polling stations, and thousands of voters turned away because of large discrepancies in the electoral roll.

“The 2012 elections were generally free, but not fair, as many voters across the country were disenfranchised and did not exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Dr Ray Anere, senior research fellow at the National Research Institute (NRI) said.

During 37 years of Independence, Papua New Guinea has been a parliamentary democracy. The conduct of elections, held every five years, is influenced by the nation’s high cultural, social and linguistic diversity and a much longer history of indigenous clan and community-based governance.  Elections regularly feature large numbers of political parties and candidates fiercely vying for a small number of parliamentary seats.

Conducting the 2012 election, in which 3,443 candidates, including 134 women, contested a total of 111 parliamentary seats, was a complex logistical exercise.  More than 80 percent of the population live in rural and mountainous areas and the Electoral Commission consigned 30,000 polling officials and 4,700 teams to 9,800 rural polling locations with international assistance for voting which began on  Jun. 23.

During the three-week polling period Transparency International (PNG) deployed 370 independent election observers to monitor approximately 1,000 polling stations.

“It is very concerning that the roll had 4.8 million names on it, many more than the census would suggest, and yet in coastal areas many people could not find their names on it, despite having been on the roll in 2007,” a spokesperson for Transparency International (PNG) observers said.

“However, in the Highlands the ward rolls were largely not used.  This was often because communities felt that the ward roll did not have enough names on it, and so not enough ballots were supplied.”

The Commonwealth Secretariat, which sent an international observer team, noted there were “problems with the electoral roll in all provinces visited. The proportion of voters turned away varied between areas and there were multiple apparent causes, including the integrity of the electoral roll itself, confusion over names used by voters, lack of clarity in the allocation of voters to specific wards and the limited ability of polling officials to verify enrolment information on polling day.”

In Highland provinces, they observed most polling stations visited “did not provide for the secrecy of the ballot with voting taking place in public and often being done by polling officials or even by candidates or scrutinizers on behalf of voters.”  Multiple voting, bloc voting and underage voters were also witnessed.

Citizens over 18 years are eligible to cast one vote in their residential electorate following completion of an enrolment form for their names to be registered on the electoral roll.

In April the government expressed concerns that updating of electoral rolls was reportedly not complete three months before the issuing of writs.

“The discrepancies in the electoral roll in my view are more the result of incompetence on the part of enrolment and roll officials, than deliberate corruption,” Anere commented. “Many voters in various electorates claim to have filled out enrolment forms, but their names were not on the final roll.”

The Electoral Commission did not respond to requests for comment.

Following the 2007 election the NRI reported that the updated electoral roll “proved to be unsuccessful in preventing the incidence of multiple voting and was corruptible at every stage of the registration and verification process…Currently there are too many opportunities for officials at different times to make modifications to the enrolment lists.”

In an assessment of polling in 2007 in Lake Kopiago in the Southern Highlands where 10,351 voters were enrolled, it was found that 50.2 percent were ineligible to enrol, 23.4 percent were not known in their ward areas, 11.6 percent were underage, 7.2 percent did not meet residency criteria, 6.4 percent were duplicated entries and 2.3 percent were deceased.

This year Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier newspaper reported that up to 4,000 voters in some constituencies and hundreds across the New Guinea Island provinces, Bougainville and the National Capital District were disenfranchised because their names did not appear on the electoral roll.

Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen has publicly commented that an investigation into suspected electoral roll offences will be conducted, but no further information has been announced. Meanwhile the Commission is compiling a report on the election results which will be presented to Parliament in November.

In a media briefing, Trawen declared: “Despite opposing views, doubts and criticisms coupled with the political impasse, the PNG Electoral Commission remained confident of successfully delivering the 2012 elections.”

Transparency International (PNG) stated that positive developments this year included improved vote count reporting and separate voting booths for women in the Highlands, but noted that peaceful elections are not necessarily free or fair.

Referring to reported cases of bribery, multiple voting, hijacking and vandalism of ballot boxes by candidates and supporters, Transparency International (PNG) commented:

“In any society where there are at best inconsistent application of the rules by key institutions and often little or no consequence for breaking the law, we should not be surprised that citizens resort to taking the law into their own hands.”

The NRI believes that greater voluntary public compliance and a new system of biometric voter registration and identification is required to achieve more robust elections.

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