Papua New Guinea goes to the polls

Jul 15, 2022
PNG Elections
Image: Flickr / Commonwealth Secretariat

On 4 July voting started in Papua New Guinea’s tenth election for the National Parliament. A new record of around 3500 candidates (releases from the Electoral Commission have given differing figures) will contest the parliament’s 118 seats, seven of which were created by a revision of electoral boundaries earlier in the year.

In the last parliament (2017-2022) there was no female MP and despite campaigns to encourage women to contest this election, only 142 of the candidates are women, compared to 167 in 2017. As usual, contestation in many parts of the country – particularly in the populous and volatile highlands – will be intense and notwithstanding a substantial security operation, involving police and Corrective Institutions personnel, the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and logistic support from the Australian Defence Force, there have already been several violent clashes between candidates’ supporters. Carrying out elections among the diverse and scattered population of Papua New Guinea is challenging and elections have been flawed by inaccurate electoral rolls, intimidation of voters and vote buying. But once the election is over, and a few local scores settled and legal challenges filed, the overall result is generally accepted, unlike the outcome in countries such as the USA.

The election is being observed by domestic monitoring teams coordinated by experienced election watchers from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and by a Commonwealth Observer Group.

Fifty-three political parties have registered with the Registry of Political Parties, however political parties play a very minor role in how electors vote. Apart from the fact that party platforms are not sharply differentiated, campaigning and voting is very much about local issues. Voters tend to give their vote to candidates whom they believe will best serve their interests in delivering local services and other benefits, and that generally means members of their clan or lain, or former public servants or businessmen who have a good local record as deliverers of benefits. Increasingly, too, there has been talk of ‘money politics’, involving cash payments to secure votes. Affiliation with evangelical church groups has also featured in several electoral outcomes in recent years. With large numbers of candidates contesting in most electorates (on average in 2022, 29 per electorate but 75 in one highlands electorate) securing a ‘vote bank’ of clan or local group votes is critical to winning. Generally, 50-55 per cent of sitting MPs fail to retain their seats (in 2002 the figure was over 70 per cent).

Of the 53 parties registered, many are small, a number have been created only in the run-up to the election, and a number will disappear soon after the election. That is not to say, however, that, parties are unimportant. On past performance, around 10-20 per cent of winning candidates will have stood as independents, though some of these may have received covert support from parties (who can only endorse one candidate per electorate). The others will have been endorsed by one of the more substantial established parties or by minor parties (often the candidate’s effectively one-person party). Under Papua New Guinea’s Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates, legislated in 2001 in an attempt to restrict MPs from shifting party allegiance (‘party hopping’) and parties from moving from one coalition to another, the leader of the party with the largest number of winning endorsed candidates has the first chance at forming a government; this does not guarantee that that leader will be elected prime minister but in every parliament to date this has been the outcome. No party since independence has won an absolute majority in an election and what happens after the election, sometimes even before the final results are known, is that the leaders of the larger parties set up rival ‘camps’ and try to cobble together a winning coalition by recruiting successful candidates from minor parties and independents before parliament meets to elect the prime minister.

The uncertainties in this process make prediction of the outcome of Papua New Guinea’s elections somewhat difficult. However, the general consensus seems to be that the country’s next prime minister will be either the present prime minister, James Marape, or his predecessor, Peter O’Neill.

O’Neill was first elected to the National Parliament in 2002 as leader of the People’s Solidarity Party, a small party of which O’Neill was the only MP and which merged with larger People’s National Congress (PNC). Initially part of Somare’s governing coalition, the PNC was subsequently dropped from the coalition and O’Neill became leader of the opposition. Re-elected in 2007 O’Neill became a minister in the Somare government but when in 2011 there was a ‘political coup’ against Somare, O’Neill, unconstitutionally and in defiance of two Supreme Court rulings, became de facto prime minister. In the national election the following year the PNC emerged with the largest number of MPs and O’Neill legally became prime minister. The O’Neill-led coalition of 2012-2017 survived a tumultuous parliamentary term, with O’Neill facing an arrest warrant over allegations of corruption, and several no confidence motions, which he avoided by judicial manoeuvring and adjournments of parliament which culminated in an intervention by the Supreme Court. He nevertheless re-emerged as prime minister in 2017 but his coalition fragmented and the PNC split and O’Neill was forced to resign in 2019, being replaced as prime minister by his one-time ally James Marape.

Marape was first elected to the National Parliament in 2007 as a National Alliance candidate and served as a minister in the Somare government from 2007 to 2011 but was amongst those who supported the political coup against Somare in 2011 and became finance minister under Peter O’Neill and a member of O’Neill’s PNC. In 2019 Marape had a falling out with O’Neill and was named as the proposed alternative prime minister in a no confidence motion against O’Neill. Marape subsequently left the PNC, becoming a member of the Pangu Pati and its parliamentary leader. When O’Neill was forced to stand down Marape was elected prime minister. His promises of a ‘change in direction’ and ‘taking back our economy’ were initially generally well received in Papua New Guinea and the following months saw a steady flow of MPs from the PNC and other parties into Pangu. But as new LNG (liquid natural gas) projects and negotiations with international companies over mining agreements became stalled there was some backlash and challenges to his leadership. In April 2020 a no confidence motion against Marape was filed, somewhat surprisingly naming O’Neill as the alternative prime minister. Following a well-used strategy of Papua New Guinea politics, however, Marape secured an adjournment of parliament, taking it into the last twelve months of the parliamentary term, when a successful no confidence movement triggers a dissolution of parliament. This is not a situation which MPs have found attractive and effectively ensured that Marape came into the 2022 election as the incumbent prime minister.

Both Marape and O’Neill seem likely to retain their seats in Tari-Pori and Ialibu-Pangia respectively, and both Pangu and (to a lesser extent) PNC seem likely to have a significant number of endorsed candidates elected. Given his recent political history, O’Neill might seem unlikely to gain another term as prime minister, but that might also have been said in 2017. The main threats to Pangu and PNC are likely to come from the National Alliance, currently headed by Patrick Pruaitch (though respected NA member and governor of East Sepik Province, Allan Bird, is seen by many as good prime ministerial material), and the United Resources Party currently led by William Duma, the member for Hagen.

The final results of the election are due to be handed down by 29 July, though given the logistic difficulties associated with elections in Papua New Guinea it is hard to believe that all votes will be counted and preferences distributed by 29 July. By then, however, rival groups will be competing for the numbers for a winning coalition before parliament meets in early August.


Ron May is an emeritus fellow in the ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs and a former director of Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute. His latest book, State and Society in Papua New Guinea 2001-2021, is scheduled for release by ANU Pres

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!