Papua New Guinea’s parliamentary elections took place June 24 to July 8, and there was significant controversy. During the election, officials went on strike in the capital city, Port Moresby, and violence broke out at polling stations in Enga province, where at least 20 people died.
Election officials worked slowly to tally the votes, delaying the announcement of results as a way to protest lack of payment. It wasn’t until late September that the last undeclared seat was filled.
Despite these and other setbacks, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill formed a new government in Papua New Guinea in early August. Here’s what you need to know about this country’s complex voting system.
The electoral contest was particularly crowded
In Papua New Guinea’s ninth election since independence from Australia in 1975, 3,340 candidates ran in races for 111 parliamentary seats. Half of those candidates came from 44 political parties — including 25 new parties registered for this election. The other half of the candidate pool ran as independents.
Papua New Guineans selected their preferred candidates using a complicated voting system inherited from Australia known as the alternative vote. At the polls, voters rank their top three preferred candidates. If no candidate receives the absolute majority (50 percent +1) of first-round votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes transfer to the remaining second-preference candidates (and so on).
In his research on Papua New Guinea elections, political scientist Ben Reilly found that the alternate vote system encourages moderation in an electorate that would otherwise be divided by ethnic clan structures. Papua New Guinea voters almost always vote for someone in their own clan as their first preference. Majoritarian elections are often decided by which candidate wins more second- and third-preference votes.
The labor and time spent to count votes in an alternative vote system is significant. Although O’Neill formed a government on Aug. 2, there were still 20 empty parliamentary seats. With so many candidates running for so few seats, and because people tend to vote for candidates from their clan, thousands of ballots were exhausted. This means that none of their preferences were elected and their vote was eliminated.
From delays to violence, controversy plagued this election
The Papua New Guinea Electoral Commission briefly suspended voting in Port Moresby when the city’s election manager was arrested on suspicion of bribery in late June. He was found with the equivalent of $60,000 in cash in his car. He and other election officials were also caught with ballots that were already filled in.
The most notable delay in the election was the parliamentary seat that went unfilled until late September, when incumbent William Powi was announced the winner in the constituency representing the Southern Highlands province. Security issues and electoral violence delayed ballot counting.
Election-related violence led to at least 22 deaths in Enga. Students in Lae burned boxes of electoral ballots, protesting against officials bringing only 1,500 ballots while the university’s polling station was meant to serve 5,000 registered voters. Opposition politicians said they thought the current ruling party, in an effort to hold onto power, resorted to violence to distract citizens from voting.
The incoming parliament is lopsided and may be unstable
On Aug. 2, O’Neill was elected prime minister by 60 of Papua New Guinea’s 111 members of parliament — a significant decline from the 93 who elected him five years ago. O’Neill’s party, the People’s National Congress, won 29 seats in this election. Half of O’Neill’s 32-member cabinet come from the People’s National Congress.
The election left women completely out of parliament. Although 167 women were on the ballot, more female candidates than ever before, none were elected. Since 1972, PNG voters have elected only seven women to parliament. The current Papua New Guinea parliament is the first since 1997 without any female representatives.
Independents won 13 percent of the seats. This is similar to the previous parliament, with 14 percent of its members independents. Given, parliament members often switch parties during their term and with the significant number of independent members of parliament, there is potential for parliamentary instability.
Political instability in Papua New Guinea is nothing new. In fact, O’Neill is the only prime minister to retain power for an entire term in office. However, O’Neill’s power in the legislature has declined as his coalition shrunk. This unpredictability may result in “parliamentary supremacy” where the executive branch is beholden to the backbench.
The 2017 election raises questions about election integrity
Political scientists consider Papua New Guinea a model of democracy among developing countries, but problems have threatened the election’s integrity. The voter rolls were from 2012, which meant they were inaccurate and out of date. Some voters had multiple fingers inked, suggesting they voted more than once. And election returns in one province reportedly indicated voter turnout of 145 percent.
Election observers identified multiple needs requiring review before the next election. In addition to specific recommendations to update voter rolls and use higher-quality indelible ink, observers also called for funding the electoral commission earlier, and allowing the commission to deal more efficiently with significant logistics hurdles.
Whether Papua New Guinea is or is not a “model democracy,” the country is also an outlier. Despite peaceful turnovers after every election since 1975, Papua New Guinea has a weak and declining party system. The nation thus stands in contrast to the scholarship that suggests strong political parties sustain democratic institutions.
Political parties in Papua New Guinea seem even weaker after the controversial 2017 elections, and it remains to be seen whether the country will continue to be a beacon of democracy in the developing world.
Zoe Meers is a research assistant at the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Sydney. Follow her on Twitter at @zoe_meers1.