Shambolic polling period continues in PNG

5:24 pm on 3 July 2017

Disquiet about flaws in Papua New Guinea's electoral roll persists as polling continues in the general election.

The two-week polling schedule is into its second half as claims of unfairness in the process flood in from around the country.

However the Electoral Commission and the government both remain upbeat about the election reaching a cohesive conclusion.

A polling officer reads an electoral roll to call out names for voters to step into the polling booth during the Papua New Guinea 2017 election.

A polling officer reads an electoral roll to call out names for voters to step into the polling booth during the Papua New Guinea 2017 election. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

According to the Commission, polling has been completed in 22 of the country's 111 electorates where officials are preparing to start counting.

This includes the provinces of Hela, Eastern Highlands, segments of Southern Highlands, and the National Capital District.

In the previous national election in 2012, the capital was the last to complete the polling and counting process.

Complaints about the lack of cohesion around that poll have been dwarfed by the flood of complaints about omissions from the electoral roll in this election.

In the nine days of polling so far, polling has been deferred for several days in many electorates where objections flooded in over late changes to the common roll.

Voters in the capital had already begun turning up to vote last Tuesday when the Commission announced voting would be deferred for three days.

The same day three electoral officials were arrested after being found carrying marked ballot papers and 57-thousand US dollars in cash.

The Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato said the cash was intended for polling officers who refused to work unless they were paid their "camping allowances" - dealing with this strike had been the purported reason for deferring polling in Port Moresby.

But several days on, the polling officers did not appear to have been paid, with many of them sleeping rough on the floor of a local stadium.

Papua New Guinea election polling officers sleep rough in stadium in the capital, Port Moresby.

Papua New Guinea election polling officers sleep rough in stadium in the capital, Port Moresby. Photo: Supplied

Polling is currently underway in 52 electorates, with a number of electorates yet to start - the Commission has indicated it could extend the period if polling isn't completed within two weeks.

In the last election, the polling period entered a fourth week due to delays linked to logistic difficulties and poor weather.

Movement of today's scheduled voting in the Highlands city of Mt Hagen to Thursday is just the latest disruption in a chaotic polling period.

Turning up to vote

After polling in his own electorate of Ialibu-Pangia was deferred for a day due to claims of unfairness by other candidates, prime minister Peter O'Neill cast his vote yesterday.

Many people aren't so lucky however.

Up in East New Britain, the former prime minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu was among those who turned up to polling places to find their names were no longer on the roll.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill casts his vote in the 2017 election in his electorate of Ialibu-Pangia.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill casts his vote in the 2017 election in his electorate of Ialibu-Pangia. Photo: PMO Media

Another former prime minister, Sir Mekere Morauta - who has come out of political retirement to stand for the Moresby Northwest seat - had a similar experience.

Sir Mekere had checked his name on the electronic roll on the Electoral Commission's website - it was there. He also checked on a printed roll dated 25 June - it was there.

Yet when he turned up to vote last Friday, his name was not on the roll.

But he'd kept a record of his Voter ID, and told the polling officers that this demonstrated he was on a legitimate voter, so they let him vote.

However many other people in PNG do not have the agency of someone like Sir Mekere, or the means to check records, when they find their names not on this latest version of the roll.

Sir Mekere said this was the most chaotic election in PNG's history, and was so by design.

"Unfortunately, This chaos is an organised one. It's organised by PNC (ruling People's National Congress Party). Because PNC is likely to be wiped out in a very clean election," he said.

The prime minister has hit back at Sir Mekere, saying "failed Leaders can make any claim they like, but they never back this up with proof".

"The delays in polling have been unfortunate, but it is better to get all procedures in place before the first vote is cast," said Mr O'Neill.

Chaos

The prime minister has claimed the 2017 election was being conducted without the violence and disruption of the previous three elections.

But this assertion rests uneasily next to reports filtering through of unrest around polling, for instance in Morobe province.

Ballot papers were burnt at Lae's University of Technology polling booth on campus after only 1500 ballot papers were provided for the polling area's voting population understood to be towards 5000.

Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Lae, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Elsewhere in Omili, polling was brought to a halt when a crowd of voters became disorderly, prompting police to open fire to disperse them.

Provincial police meanwhile have detained five people for allegedly hijacking ballot boxes and tampering with them at Wampar Urban at Huon Gulf .

The suspects are reportedly from Highlands, a region where various reports of intimidation around voting are proliferating.

Police have been deployed to man most polling places, but in some parts of the Highlands, they have not stopped several cases of theft and destruction of ballot boxes.

Sometimes PNG's security forces, with their patchy discipline record, are the ones seen to be intimidating at polling time.

At one polling place in Jiwaka province, Defence Force personnel tasked with maintaining security were photographed forcing polling officers to do push-ups.

Papua New Guinea election polling officers being made to do push-ups by security forces in Banz, Jiwaka province.

Papua New Guinea election polling officers being made to do push-ups by security forces in Banz, Jiwaka province. Photo: Jack Avai

Meanwhile, reports in the capital about police using firearms to chase away scrutineers as ballot boxes were being transported have been played down by the constabulary.

The capital's Metropolitan Police Commander Benjamin Turi said a couple of shots were fired to disperse a crowd of scrutineers and candidates' supporters who were being a nuisance.

As the counting period approaches, there is likely to be more chaos.

Complaints around the country about this election centre around two main themes: concerns that election preparation was badly under-funded by government, and suspicions that the election is being deliberately rigged.

The election has been so shambolic that a government probably doesn't need to do much rigging in order to return to power.

According to the Electoral Commission, Ialibu-Pangia's polling is complete and it is set to be one of the first electorates where counting is conducted.

It could well be a repeat of last election when Peter O'Neill's electorate was the first seat to be declared, giving him a distinct advantage in the ensuing lobbying to form a coalition government.

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