PNG election stumbles on after day of chaos

5:14 pm on 28 June 2017

Tuesday was one of those days when chaos prevailed in Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby.

Locals will tell you such days are not unusual, but they prefer it to be outside of election time.

Polling booth PNG election 2017

Polling booth PNG election 2017 Photo: RNZI/ Johnny Blades

An announcement mid-morning by the Electoral Commission that polling for the national election in the National Capital District had been deferred to Friday set the tone.

It created confusion as thousands of voters had already begun turning up to polling stations when this announcement was made.

The Commission said the deferral was due to issues with outstanding "camping allowances" for polling officials.

A couple of hours later, news broke on social media that three electoral officials had been arrested and were being questioned at Boroko police station after police found suspicious documents and marked ballot boxes.

One of them, the elections manager of the national capital, Terrence Hetinu, was found with US$57,000 cash in his possession and a signed document from an unnamed candidate, according to the police commander, Sylvester Kalaut.

Voters who had gathered at the gates of the Electoral Commission to complain about the change to polling now had even more to be aggrieved about.

Since the two-week polling schedule started in other parts of PNG, there has been a flood of complaints around electoral rolls and allegations of extra ballot papers being handled by candidates before polling.

Widespread suspicions that this election is being subverted took definite shape on Tuesday when the election officials in the capital were taken in by police.

By the afternoon, a group of candidates in the NCD electorate gathered at the office of Sir Mekere Morauta, former prime minister and trenchant critic of the current prime minister Peter O'Neill.

Sir Mekere Morauta (far right) and other National Capital District election candidates meet to organise a petition calling for the Electoral Commissioner's resignation, 27 June, 2017

Sir Mekere Morauta (far right) and other National Capital District election candidates meet to organise a petition calling for the Electoral Commissioner's resignation, 27 June, 2017 Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

They organised a petition calling for the Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato to stand down due to what they called his incompetence and for bringing the election process into disrepute.

Sir Mekere said the 2017 election was the most chaotic election in PNG's history.

"Unfortunately the chaos is an organised one, organised by PNC (the ruling People's National Congress Party of Mr O'Neill) because PNC is likely to be wiped out in a clean election," he said.

"So it's in O'Neill's interest to create chaos, and then use that chaos to return as many PNC candidates as possible."

Later that afternoon at a news conference, the media grilled the Electoral Commissioner for answers to what had been happening in the capital.

Mr Gamato denied allegations that his officers was involved in suspected bribery, saying the cash found was meant to be payment for the outstanding allowances to NCD polling officials.

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato under pressure at a media conference

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato under pressure at a media conference Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

The Commission had earlier said allowances were not paid in cash, but Mr Gamato indicated the official was compelled to carry the money because the urgent situation around the polling officers' demands warranted it.

Despite complaints in several provinces about caches of ballot papers being illegally handled by candidates, Mr Gamato said he was not aware of extra papers floating around.

He challenged people making such claims to present evidence, and defended the impartiality of Isaac Lupari as the head of the election steering committee.

Mr Lupari is the Chief Secretary to Government and a close ally of the prime minister.

Peter O'Neill himself chipped in that evening with some pressure of his own, urging both electoral officials and police to do their jobs.

"The Electoral Commissioner has to put his foot down and refer any candidate, party official or individual, who is attempting to pervert the electoral process, and they must face the full brunt of the law," said the prime minister.

Disenfranchised

But there are other important areas where this election has already lost credibility.

The electoral roll remaining a mess is foremost among them, with various provinces finding that wild discrepancies have been added in the most recent update to the roll.

Noting a flood of objections to the roll in the Highlands province of Chimbu in recent days, Mr Gamato has allowed these electorates to revert to an earlier, more reliable preliminary roll.

Even so, there are reports from all the regions of voters turning up to vote only to find their names are not on the roll.

This is despite PNG entering a US$15 million programme and engaging Australian government support in 2015 to conduct a major cleansing and update of the roll, so that ghost names would be eradicated and new young voters registered.

"I believe Australian officials have been here the last few years planning the conduct of this election and they obviously have failed, given what's happening now," said Sir Mekere.

Mr Gamato was taken to task about several thousand students at Goroka University who this week discovered they weren't on the roll and, unable to find time or money to return to their home provinces, were prevented from voting.

"The roll updating exercise was made available to the provinces... So I would have expected the students and staff to have approached the election manager in Eastern highlands and raise that issue so they would be captured," said Mr Gamato.

But he couldn't offer much else in response to this and various other accounts of groups of voters disenfranchised from the electoral process.

It appears, it is just their bad luck. And many others' too.

The leader of the National Alliance party, Patrick Pruaitch said lack of preparedness by electoral teams has been adding to the series of polling delays since Saturday.

This, he said, combined with late changes to polling venues and dates to create confusion.

"Making it inevitable that in addition to the thousands of people whose names are not on the Common Roll many thousands of other citizens will be unable to vote by the time the polls close."

Meanwhile, incumbent NCD MPs Michael Malabag, Justin Tkatchenko and Governor Powes Parkop blasted the Electoral Commission for the deferral in polling.

The late change, they said, would disrupt the plans of many voters and effect businesses who had made contingencies around their staff voting on Tuesday.

Sitting members for Moresby South, Justin Tkatchenko, and NCD Regional,  Powes Parkop, have criticised the preparation for the 2017 election

Sitting members for Moresby South, Justin Tkatchenko, and NCD Regional, Powes Parkop, have criticised the preparation for the 2017 election Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

That the Commissioner is under intense pressure was already clear when one-day polling scheduled for Monday in three Highlands provinces was postponed amid problems with the electoral roll and logistical delays.

Now leaders from all over the country are calling for Mr Gamato to be held responsible for the Roll discrepancies and changes to polling schedules which will both ultimately disenfranchise many voters.

Mr Gamato told media he would not resign as the NCD candidates were urging him to do, explaining that he had an election to conduct.

Meanwhile, the election officials who were taken in by police have reportedly since been released without charge, although police indicated the matter would be probed further.

Sir Mekere commended elements of the police for striving to hold corrupt officials to account at this important time for PNG.

Police and Defence Force personnel are already playing a key part in security around the election.

PNG Police personnel are among the personnel tasked with ensuring a secure election who are under-resourced and in many cases have not been paid regularly for months

PNG Police personnel are among the personnel tasked with ensuring a secure election who are under-resourced and in many cases have not been paid regularly for months Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

However they are under-resourced to perform this function, many of them having admitted they have not been paid allowances for a long time.

With the capital's chaos of yesterday still fresh in people's minds, polling was scheduled to hobble on in other parts of the country.

Problems with the roll, and hiccups in polling, are still expected, and the NCD may get to the polls on Friday as Mr Gamato promised.

Yet with all that has gone on so far in polling, it is difficult to see how this election can gain integrity from here on in.

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