Elections in Niugini

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is in the middle of a general election.  PNG’s unique geography, and attendant ultra-diversity of languages and cultures, makes holding elections a gargantuan effort.  The unwieldy nature of PNG’s polls is reflected by the governor general’s recent extension of the voting period (which was already two weeks) in a number of provinces.  Of the over 10,000 polling booths in the country, roughly 1700 have little or no road access.  Security problems also contribute to the protraction of PNG’s polls.  Security forces from PNG, Australia and New Zealand have been deployed in an attempt to minimise election-related violence and can only be in so many places at once.

This year’s polls are complicated by the strange political circumstances that preceded them.  Incumbent Prime Minister Peter O’Neill was elected by the parliament last August after a number of its members declared that office vacant.  That declaration was a result of previous Prime Minister Michael Somare’s uncertain but bad health condition (his family had earlier made a retirement announcement on his behalf).

But Somare defied expectations by recovering and returning to PNG from his Singapore hospital bed.  He then made clear his preference to take back his position as PNG’s leader.  In December the Supreme Court ruled that his removal was unconstitutional.  In January a retrenched colonel attempted to reinstate him as PM.  The attempt failed and O’Neill retained the support of parliament.

Politics is very personal in PNG where individual personalities matter more than political parties.  Multi-member coalition governments and instability are the norm.  Seats tend to be fought on local issues so it is difficult to predict electoral outcomes or divine national-level policy debates.

Given the importance of personality in PNG’s politics, its not surprising that music is used as a campaign tool.  This photo was taken by a friend (thanks Doris) in Goroka.  It is an O’Neill campaign rally in the town’s central rugby field.  O’Neill shared the stage with musician Joe Kema.

Unlike PNG’s frenetic politics, its popular music is languid to the extreme.  I’d normally run a mile from anything termed ‘easy listening’ but in PNG it just works.  There’s a lot of reggae and daggy love songs with equally daggy midi backing  tracks.

Despite the fact that many have not yet even voted,  O’Neill has announced he will form a government.  While he can be confident he has retained his seat, only the party with the most seats will be invited to form a coalition, so his declaration is at best peremptory, at worst, inflammatory.  

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