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On the election trail in Papua New Guinea, political campaigns are awash with money and guns but reformers are trying to turn the tide against corruption. By Hamish McDonald.

Papua New Guinea’s election challenges

The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, is greeted by a group dressed as Mud Men warriors at Goroka airport.
The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, is greeted by a group dressed as Mud Men warriors at Goroka airport.
Credit: Hamish McDonald

As Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape was working the tables at a hotel gathering of his Pangu Party in Goroka, a heavily drunk man was making a nuisance of himself. Burly police bodyguards moved in for a rough eviction. But then Marape saw the man, walked closer, embraced him, and got him to sit quietly in a corner. The prime minister had recognised an old high school classmate.

In a country where tribal and regional identity has deep pull, the incident showed qualities likely to help Marape retain power in Papua New Guinea’s elections starting on July 4: an empathetic character widely cited by political observers, as well as personal connections way beyond the wantok (language group) links of his Huli tribe in the southern highlands Tari region.

Marape, 51, spent his childhood following his father, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, to churches across the country, from Ningerum, hard up on the Indonesian border, to Buin, in the south of Bougainville Island, before high school in Goroka and university in Port Moresby. All these places claim him as their own. Marriage to Rachael, a Sepik woman raised in Madang on the north coast, extended his connections.

This kind of thing counts in Papua New Guinea, where electioneering is a succession of mass meetings at which candidates try to establish rapport with crowds. Greeted at Goroka’s airport by a group dressed as the region’s famous Mud Men warriors, Marape spent the day plunging into crowds with bodyguards holding back. He gave long speeches in Tok Pisin, the PNG lingua franca.

His acknowledged communication skills will be sorely needed to win enough of the parliament’s 118 seats to form a government coalition. He is up against a powerful rival in his predecessor, Peter O’Neill, 57, a man with extensive business interests whose People’s National Congress has endorsed 94 candidates and cashed them up.

O’Neill, the son of an Australian colonial-era magistrate, is also identified with the southern highlands through his mother, and, like Marape, is defending a seat there. Having ousted the ageing independence leader Michael Somare through intense parliamentary and legal manoeuvres in 2011, O’Neill himself fell victim to the turmoil that saw Marape rise to power in 2019.

O’Neill is itching to get the prime ministership back, or at least be the power behind the throne – not least because Marape’s government has been trying to put him on trial for alleged irregularities in government spending and borrowing – and has set up a new Independent Commission Against Corruption to pursue inquiries.

 

Money counts in these five-yearly elections, where politics is described as among the most “clientelist” in the world. In the highlands, would-be candidates are told not to bother unless they have at least two million kina ($A800,000) to spend, according to estimates by academics. At places such as Mount Hagen, locals scoff and say a winning budget would be more like K20 million. With an average of 30 candidates vying for each seat, the region is awash with voter bribery. Some candidates run to lose, selling their second and third preferences to others. Candidates in the calmer coastal regions can get away with K500,000 or less.

Sitting MPs will have had the advantage of a personal government fund that has ranged up to K10 million a year. Ostensibly for government services such as clinics, schools and roads, the funds are often deployed to attach the MP’s name to projects. “It’s pork-barrelling,” says Allan Bird, MP and governor of the East Sepik Province. “It’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s just become more pronounced.”

A tightening of this funding contributed to O’Neill’s downfall. When he came to office, the economy was booming with investment in the $US19 billion ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project in the southern highlands. But soon after the LNG came on stream in 2014, global oil and gas prices plummeted.

O’Neill had borrowed $A1.3 billion from the Swiss bank UBS to buy 10.1 per cent of the Australian company Oil Search, an LNG partner. When its share price fell, a put option forced O’Neill’s government to sell the shareholding and repay the loan, at a loss of $A340 million. Then, as projected LNG revenue streams dropped, O’Neill resorted to commercial loans and high-interest bond sales to domestic institutions. The government interest bill soared from about 5 per cent of domestic revenue to about 20 per cent by the time he left office.

O’Neill’s treasury had less to hand out to MPs for their local projects. “I guess that’s where the economy intersects with politics,” says Maholopa Laveil, an economics lecturer at the University of PNG. “If you have government revenue falling, you can’t keep governing coalitions together. That’s when you lose power.”

There were other casualties, beyond the personal largesse of MPs. The 20 per cent of their electoral funds supposed to be spent on health was the first to be cut back. Vaccination rates for infants fell from 70-80 per cent to 30 per cent by 2018, contributing to outbreaks of polio and tuberculosis. At the best of times, delivery of essential services has been falling behind a population growing at 3 per cent a year, meaning PNG’s estimated nine million people could double in 24 years.

Other factors loosened O’Neill’s grip. Despite reputational damage from his time running state pension and investment funds in the late 1990s, many had cautiously welcomed O’Neill as someone who might bring private-sector efficiency into government. These hopes were steadily dashed. “There was no such thing as conflict of interest,” says Paul Barker, director of Port Moresby’s Institute of National Affairs. “His business enterprises were burgeoning. He was clearly spending a lot of his working hours advancing his business interests, rather than the government’s interests.”

Ministers were irked at being pushed out of decisions made with a circle of associates around the prime minister. A severe earthquake in the southern highlands hit revenue even further in 2018.

Marape’s three years as prime minister have not been any easier. The Covid-19 pandemic put the country into isolation and hampered access to vital supplies. This year, fuel prices jumped because of the crisis in Ukraine.

Having jumped from O’Neill’s party to the rival Pangu – which clings somewhat to its 1960s liberation-theory origins, with a policy of “economic independence” – Marape put the squeeze on the country’s biggest gold producer, the Canadian-and-Chinese-owned Porgera mine, after its operating lease expired. He demanded and eventually got a higher equity share for the surrounding Enga province and landowners, with more to be acquired in another 10 years. But this has involved a two-year shutdown at a time of high gold prices, with a loss of about K2 billion in revenue. O’Neill is making much of this in the campaign.

And after three years, there are still some who wonder how different is James Marape from Peter O’Neill. “He’s an enigma,” according to Barker, who says Marape engages well with everyone, refers often to his faith, and does not hold back on delivering hard news if required. “But others say: ‘Yes, but he’s the Christian, sweet face of Peter O’Neill.’ He learnt his tricks with Peter O’Neill, he was part of his cabinet, he knew what was going on, he wasn’t blowing whistles.”

In Goroka, I asked Marape how he differs from O’Neill. He demurred at saying he was a better man. “Every man has his good side,” Marape said. “But as time progressed, power got into his head, and his heart shifted away from the main goalpost, which is to say equally to all parts of the country and do it right for everyone. The decisions made must be collective decisions, instead of one-man decisions. We come from a Melanesian society where it’s more democratic in every sense, where you make decisions collectively. You take the blame together. But if you make one-man decisions, you must take the blame with you. Some of us reached the tolerance rate where we can’t be part of that sort of regime where you make a call and you expect everyone else to follow.”

Asked what drove him, Marape said it was his rural upbringing. “I come from a place where they’ve been harvesting oil and gas, and even up to the date I took office there was no electricity, no sealed road,” he said. “That is my mind space.

“At independence, I was at a place called Nomad River. If I were to take you back there today, that place is as it was in 1975. Yet only 30 minutes by road you have a world-class gold and copper mine, Ok Tedi. So this kind of thing drives me. I feel the unfairness of distribution of the benefits to all parts of the country.”

I put it to him that, with all the money likely to be splashed around in the election, he could have to work with the same corrupt elements in parliament as before. Marape said he had fought off challenges by O’Neill “from day one”, including a tense vote of no confidence in 2020.

“I maintained government on the back of first-term and second-term MPs, those who wanted to do the right things for our country, and they became the backbone of me remaining in power.”

After the election, Marape said, he would assemble Pangu MPs and allies in Wewak, where Somare is buried, to remind them of the hopes of independence. “I will be taking the young leaders who come in, not for privileges, but to make it better for our citizens.”

 

No matter who becomes prime minister, parliament’s next term will have challenges. Jobs are scarce and inflation is rising. Two big new LNG projects have to be brought to commencement, before their multibillion-dollar investments start and their well-paid construction workforce lifts PNG’s income tax revenue.

Even then, Bird, the East Sepik governor, says economic independence is a meaningless slogan until every citizen is productive. “The large-scale resource projects, they’ll not get us there: they just make government lazy,” he said. “Unless we broaden our base, particularly with agriculture, we’re never going to get there.”

Then there is Bougainville. Its people voted 97.7 per cent to leave PNG in a 2019 referendum, after a 20-year peace-building phase that was hoped to reconcile them from the island’s civil war in the 1990s. The vote has to be ratified by the PNG parliament, and most non-Bougainvillean MPs will hate the idea of PNG splitting. Political discussions have been drawn out but, should they refuse to ratify, Bougainville could simply declare independence and PNG does not have the military power to block this.

Marape told me his government is looking at examples of associated-nation status as a compromise, such as the Cook Islands’ link to New Zealand. Recently he signed an agreement with Bougainville leaders that the issue should be settled before the new parliament’s term ends in 2027. “I’d rather not be the prime minister to have to handle this issue,” he admits. “But, unfortunately, it could fall on my shoulders.”

In Madang, Bryan Kramer, the sitting MP, explained just how difficult reform will be. In 2019 he joined Marape’s government after years in opposition campaigning against corruption. As a condition, he got the police portfolio. “We lifted the floorboards up, to see just how bad it was, and it is extremely bad,” he said. “Corruption is essentially imbedded into every segment of government. People are stealing at an accelerating rate because they can.

“The police aren’t making arrests because most of them are following politicians around. And their boss is the commissioner of police, who is appointed by corrupt politicians and they’re directed not to make arrests.”

After shaking out the top police commanders, Kramer set the police after O’Neill, who responded by trying to get injunctions against Kramer, referring complaints to his own police force. A prosecution against O’Neill over alleged irregularity in a government purchase of generators from an Israeli company failed in committal hearings.

In the police portfolio and then as minister for justice, Kramer worked on reforms. One was formal abolition of the death penalty – never used but on the books – which Marape announced this year. Another was improving the prosecution chain from police through public prosecutors in higher courts. Asked about the widespread suspicion that prosecutors deliberately throw cases, Kramer admitted there were several “risk stages”, but added: “There’s a degree of incompetency. Like police not getting proper warrants. Over the years, the standards have dropped. No one’s been doing their job for so long.”

O’Neill is still under investigation, Kramer said. “You’re caught between trying to fix the system, across the entire spectrum of government, versus going after one issue. So I would suspect that in the next few years there would be other cases. It’s just a question of drilling down and looking into them.”

At lower levels of officialdom, petty corruption remains almost standard. A vehicle taking me along the Highlands Highway from Goroka to Mount Hagen was stopped three times at police checkpoints. Donations of K20 to K50 were required before we were allowed to proceed.

After three years in his cabinet, Kramer gives a tick to Marape. “Obviously there are significant comparisons,” he said. “If Marape wasn’t somewhat genuine about addressing corruption, then I wouldn’t have been the police minister and then minister for justice. There’ve obviously been issues about managing numbers with him, trying to keep the coalition in power. That’s been a challenge. There were a number of unpopular decisions, but you wear it. So in my view it was a significant step forward from the O’Neill era.”

Allan Bird found Marape to be sincere in what he says and promises. “He wants the right thing, and then he has to balance it among all the conflicting interests,” Bird said. “That can’t be easy. We’re on the same WhatsApp group and the guy goes to bed at 3am every night.”

But there is still a strong possibility of O’Neill’s return. Most of the allegations against him do not resonate with ordinary citizens. He gets highly favourable coverage in the leading newspaper, News Corp’s Post-Courier. His government’s tariff increases won him backing from local manufacturers and food processors. Marape’s platform is connecting communities, promoting the rural economy and “economic independence”, but it’s entirely possible another leader could emerge from the post-election broking as prime minister.

 

After observing the last election in 2017, an Australian National University team found that cheating and money politics were “more widespread and more brazen than ever before”. Violence exploded, with 204 people killed, mostly in the highland provinces. Among the vignettes: supporters of one candidate commandeering voting booths and filling in ballot papers; a proportion of voters in one district voting an average 18 times each; one group of eight young men filling in ballots for 3000 people; boxes of ballot papers stolen and destroyed.

Ahead of voting – which runs for three weeks, staggered around the provinces so security forces can be focused – the electoral roll is still guesswork. The Covid-19 epidemic caused the 2021 census to be postponed for three years, so the roll is based on 3 per cent estimated population growth from 2017 – when the roll left off about 20 per cent of potential voters anyway.

So far, more than 30 people have been killed in campaign violence and accidents. Assassination attempts have been made on two candidates and one election official. Despite 10,200 police and soldiers deployed, with Australian military logistics support, the worst violence will come during the voting and counting. One ominous sign is that the black-market price for firearms has jumped. “They have guns and they’re ready to use them,” said one police rapid-response officer guarding the prime minister, himself armed with a semiautomatic rifle and spare ammunition clips strapped to his chest.

“The negative is we are ill-prepared,” said Bryan Kramer. “The positive is that the electoral commissioner is actually an okay guy. He wants to do the right thing. He’s an honest guy but he’s in above his head. He’s inherited a mess.”

To the indignation of some candidates, the commissioner has replaced returning officers seen as too close to particular candidates, and removed some powers to settle voting disputes. Supporters of one deposed returning officer attempted to shut down the busy airport at Mount Hagen in protest, pouring oil on the runway.

“He who controls the process, controls the outcome,” said Kramer, who hopes nonetheless he can get back with a few more young reformers and women MPs.

East Sepik’s Bird is rather less optimistic. “I’ve sat in parliament four years 11 months, I’ve seen the conflicting interests at play, and a lot of it isn’t good for Papua New Guinea,” he said. “We’re not going to put those things aside until we really, really hit the sewer. I don’t think we are there yet. I don’t see the sense of urgency in the people who get elected.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Among the Mud Men".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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