Asia

PNG poll violence is expected — the question is how much

Country braces for elections which last time round saw at least 200 people killed

Siktus Harson, Jakarta

Updated: June 25, 2022 05:59 AM GMT

Peter O'Neill, then prime minister, votes in Papua New Guinea's general election on July 2, 2017. (Photo: Office of the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea/AFP) 

With Papua New Guinea heading to the polls soon to elect new legislators, security remains a major concern, with authorities reporting many cases of violence. 

Corruption, poor policing, a lack of funding and inaccurate voters' lists are contributing to the chaos. 

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Over 6.2 million registered voters, more than two-thirds of the country's population of 9 million, are expected to cast their votes in a general election that will run for three weeks from July 2-22. 

This time they will elect 118 MPs, up from 111 in the 2017 polls. They consist of 96 open seats and 22 provincial ones involving 2,350 candidates. Those who are elected to provincial seats will also become governors. 

In some provinces, political rivalries are running high, which has already seen politically motivated violence in the run-up to the polls.

Observers fear election-related violence will continue during next month's election and could eclipse the bloodshed seen at the last poll.

The situation is a serious concern, particularly in highland regions where the crime rate stemming from ethnic rivalries is high

In 2017, at least 200 people were killed in election-related violence, the worst in the country's history since it declared independence almost half a century ago. 

Although violence this time around is not as widespread, police expect more trouble in the upcoming weeks.

At least 29 people have died in electoral violence since campaigning began last month.

On June 19, a group of men armed with knives and slingshots attacked a candidate's family and supporters on their way to a campaign rally in Morobe province. A boy, a man and two women were reportedly injured.

This followed violence in which two men were shot and killed in a clash between supporters of two political parties in the same province.  

The situation is a serious concern, particularly in highland regions where the crime rate stemming from ethnic rivalries is high. 

To make matters worse, several candidates have been arrested for illegally possessing firearms, raising further concerns over the candidates' integrity and the democratic process in a country where ballot tampering and voter intimidation are quite common.

Police chief Daniel Manning has vowed to crack down on violence and corruption. He said thousands of police and military personnel will be deployed to secure the polls. 

The problem is that police numbers are inadequate and officers are ill-equipped and ill-prepared.

It's one of the reasons why Prime Minister James Marape requested the assistance of the Australian military. Last week 130 Australian troops arrived in the country to help election authorities and security forces distribute ballot papers to remote areas. 

Marape, leader of the Papua and Niugini Union Party (Pangu Pati), demanded candidates discourage supporters from engaging in violence as it not only harms democracy but would hamper the country's recovery efforts from the horrific impacts of Covid-19. 

Corruption remains a major issue in Papua New Guinea and often general elections are tainted by bribery, vote buying and altering ballot papers while being transported to counting stations

The pandemic plunged more people into poverty after leaving thousands unemployed. In an ordinary situation, uneducated and jobless youths are involved in various crimes, but now they can be easily be used by irresponsible candidates to achieve their goals in the upcoming election, which is also at risk of manipulation due to data inaccuracies.

This has been blamed on a lack of funding due to money being channeled to post-pandemic recovery programs and changes to the electoral system. 

With only a few days left before polls open, hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, particularly in highland regions, may not be able to vote as their names are not on the electoral roll, according to media reports. 

Despite such problems, the use of violence to win an election is never justified.

Civil society groups including the Catholic Church have renewed calls for fair and violence-free elections.  The head of the PNG Catholic Professionals Society, Paul Harricknen, urged law enforcers to ensure this.

The strict implementation of the Firearms Amendment Bill recently approved by parliament, which imposes a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for unlawfully manufacturing or possessing firearms, could help contain gun violence during and after the election. 

Corruption remains a major issue in Papua New Guinea and often general elections are tainted by bribery, vote buying and altering ballot papers while being transported to counting stations. 

There is no other power that can change such practices except the goodwill and commitment of law enforcers, the election commission and the public in general. Despite the magnitude of the challenges, it is not impossible to overcome all fears and doubts and have fair and peaceful elections.  

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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