June 28, 2017 9:11 pm JST

Papua New Guinea struggles to keep vote on track

Polling in the capital suspended, election officials arrested

MICHAEL FIELD, Contributing writer

People gather at an election rally in the Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby, on June 21. © AP

AUCKLAND -- Allegations of corruption and illegality have forced the suspension of voting in parts of Papua New Guinea, including the capital Port Moresby, realizing long-held fears of trouble in the two-week-long general election.

Voting began on Saturday and ends on July 8, with 47 political parties fielding 3,332 candidates for the five-year-term 111-seat National Parliament.

A government is likely to emerge in August after closed-door deals to reach a coalition.

Voting was supposed to have been held in Port Moresby on Tuesday, but was postponed until Friday after the discovery of a large sum of unexplained cash in the car of an Electoral Commission official that led to four arrests by police.

The Port Moresby district election manager, Terrence Hetinu, was found by police with $57,000 cash and a signed document from an unnamed candidate, according to police commander Sylvester Kalaut. At the same time election officials in the city were refusing to open polling stations until they had been paid an allowance.

The four people were released without charge on Wednesday, but later in the day the national Electoral Commissioner Patilias Camato announced that Hetinu had been sacked, along with several others.

Candidates in the city had gathered outside the commission offices, demanding action. "I have ... decided to replace the election manager and assistant election manager due to other public complaints," Camato said.

In a later statement, he said the cash found on Hetinu had been intended to pay an allowance to polling station workers, but that police arrested him on suspicion of wrongdoing.

Ballots to be seized

Camato said the polling officials had only been finalized last weekend and this had left it too late for them to be paid. Police continue to hold the money and it is not clear whether the allowance will even be paid by Friday. Investigations are continuing.

In some parts of the capital polling stations had managed to open before polling was called off. Ballots cast there will be seized and destroyed and voters will have to vote again on Friday.

Former prime minister Mekere Morauta called for a new commission to be installed immediately, warning that the elections might still fail. "This chaos and corruption cannot be allowed to continue," he said. "The possibility of a free and fair election is receding by the hour."

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill left on Tuesday for his remote electorate, or constituency, in Southern Highlands district, north of the capital. In a statement, he said his electorate would be voting on Friday.

"This campaign has been long, but has also been enjoyable, and I have had the opportunity to campaign in more than 50 locations in the diverse communities of our nation," he said.

O'Neill said he was "generally pleased" with the way the election had been run to date, but added "there have been instances where some candidate and party officials have attempted to manipulate the electoral process." Those who attempted to pervert the process would face the full brunt of the law.

"We must ensure free and fair elections, and I say in the strongest possible terms that police and election officials must do their jobs to uphold the law."

Observers, media and social media were reporting extensive problems with electoral rolls across the country. There appear to be large discrepancies in the rolls compared with the 2012 roll, and in places thousands of "ghost" or invalid names have been discovered.

PNG, with Australian help, began a $15 million process to update and improve the rolls in 2015, but in several areas commission officials have told people to revert to the 2012 roll.

In the Simbu district balloting had to be delayed for a day due to electoral roll problems. Extra ballot papers were also found. Voting in the area was completed without further strife.

Four people killed

The PNG National Broadcasting Corporation reported that voting had gone smoothly in Morobe Province but that the 2012 rolls had been used. Violence has broken out in several areas and even before the polls opened, four people had been killed in election violence.

O'Neill -- prime minister since 2012 -- is leader of the People's National Congress Party, which is the largest group in the outgoing parliament, with 27 seats. No single party has ever won a majority of seats.

In previous elections in Papua New Guinea an average 60% of sitting members lose their seats.

A veteran observer of PNG elections, Bill Standish, lecturer at the School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, says PNG has a dysfunctional democracy.

"I really don't think anyone can predict the overall outcome," he said. "There's a randomness about PNG elections."

Standish believed this election was the first in Papua New Guinea in which social media was playing a role. "There is a lot of nonsense on social media, but also some very well informed critiques, such as have hammered the O'Neill government for years."

Social media had played a part in a violent student strike last year and in a subsequent vote of no confidence in parliament. He said social media and growing political sophistication was a "ray of democratic optimism."

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