Government and governance, Law | The Pacific

25 March 2022

Without swift action by the Papua New Guinea government, this year’s national election could be marred by rapid transmission of the virus and malfeasance, Theresa Meki and Geejay Milli write.

The upcoming Papua New Guinea (PNG) national general election, scheduled to run from April through July 2022, is worrying, due to concerns not only about the health of Papua New Guineans but also the health of the country’s democracy.

Elections in PNG – held every five years – are one of the only occasions when citizens actively engage with the state on a nationwide scale. It is a period of high activity and mobility. Unfortunately, this means that in the midst of the pandemic, there are certain election-time behaviours that make them likely super spreader events.

PNG, as with the rest of the world, has grappled with the disastrous effects of COVID-19. While PNG was fortunate to miss the first wave of the pandemic thanks to the quick shutting of its international borders, by July 2020 the government had announced a curfew and declared a state of emergency.

Of great concern is the potential impact of the virus on the country’s already fragile healthcare system, which struggles to deal effectively with the everyday health needs of Papua New Guineans, let alone those that might arise during a pandemic.

Moreover, misinformation from social media and a lack of substantial, integrated awareness of the pandemic in local communities has contributed to widespread vaccine hesitancy.

More on this: PNG security ahead of the 2022 election

More recently, after many people travelled between provinces during the Christmas and New Year period, often with minimal adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols, there was been a surge of infections of the new Omicron variant.

With this backdrop, it is worth looking at what common electoral practices are most likely to further contribute to the spread of the virus.

The first risky election-time behaviours occur during nominations, when it is a common practice for supporters to congregate and escort their candidate to nominate either in walking convoys or convoys of overcrowded vehicles. This is usually accompanied by dancing, chanting, and singing.

It is also normal for supporters to gather in campaign houses, an activity that was once thought to be concentrated in the highlands, but is now practiced in various degrees throughout the country.

Then, there are the public rallies in which congregations from various communities assemble to listen to candidates make their speeches.

So, this begs the question: will there be any government restrictions on mobility and crowd control? Thus far, the government and media have been relatively quiet on this aspect of election preparations.

To find out what mitigation measures are likely to be implemented, lower-level elections that have taken place over the last two years may be instructive.

During the Port Moresby North West by-election in June 2021, a range of information, education and communication materials were prepared and distributed by the PNG Electoral Commission (PNGEC). These materials included posters outlining a range of requirements, including restrictions on public gatherings, requirements for mask wearing, and the self-supplying of pens to mark ballots.

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These guidelines were derived from the Niupela Pasin booklet, a joint publication of the World Health Organization and the PNG Department of Health, released in August 2020, which is aimed at giving an overview of PNG’s ‘new normal’ for pandemic safety.

Ultimately, the by-election was postponed due to COVID-19, but when it did occur the Niupela Pasin instructions were followed to a certain extent, even without the visible presence of security or law enforcement officers to ensure adherence. Yet when the results were declared, the authors observed throngs of people gathering to celebrate, without taking precautionary action.

With such lax attitudes and enforcement at the height of the pandemic, it is unlikely that COVID-19 measures will be followed at this year’s general election. While most voters will likely comply and be orderly in the polling booth, it is their socialising during and after the election period that is worrying.

Beyond the issue of the potential for virus transmission, the pandemic may also exacerbate issues with the electoral process itself. In previous elections, there have been “serious irregularities”, including issues with electoral roll, voter impersonation, underage voting, voter intimidation, block and proxy voting, and violence.

One only has to look back to the 2017 national elections which saw considerable violence and an estimated 204 election-related deaths, even with the largest number of security personnel deployed in PNG’s election history.

Another familiar feature of PNG elections since independence is the presence of numerous domestic, regional, and international election observation groups. In 2017, PNG saw election observation teams from The Australian National University, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the European Union, and Transparency International PNG.

However, even now, with travel restrictions slowly easing in other countries, PNG’s low vaccination rates and minimal adherence to COVID-19 measures make PNG a high-risk travel destination. Hence, fewer international observers are expected for the 2022 elections.

While having international election observers has not eliminated election malfeasance in the past, it has acted as a deterrent. In 2022, limited observation – or, for many polling stations, zero observation – in some electorates may result in brazen acts of misconduct that in previous elections were more discreet or weren’t able to take place.

Despite efforts by the PNG government and other agencies to combat the spread of the virus, including the rollout of the Niupela Pasin and an ongoing appeal for citizens to get vaccinated, the messages haven’t seemed to be effective with most Papua New Guineans.

When candidates go to nominate and, later, when voters go to the polls, voter behaviour will likely mirror that seen in previous elections. With the likely drop in international observers at this election, it will be up to the PNG government to put steps in place in the coming months to ensure the vote runs smoothly and that it doesn’t become a nationwide super-spreader event.

This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA). The original paper can be found here.

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One Response

  1. Sakol Jonathon says:

    What are the impacts of PNG national election from 2017 and 2022

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