As Papua New Guinea's lengthy and troubled national election nears a climax, lobbying to form the next coalition government is intensifying.
For those who have enjoyed watching the action so far, the shambolic polling period giving way to a testy vote counting process that is still underway, don't fret: the election never really ends. Typically, following PNG's five-yearly election, dozens of petitions end up in the court of disputed returns, taking years to be processed.
It's clear that this time, there will be many petitions, given the surfeit of flaws in the election, even if some of them are perennial problems. Omissions of names from the electoral roll has been a feature of previous PNG elections, but the problem has been widespread in this year's edition and appears to have disadvantaged key voter bases.
There are also claims the Electoral Commission created nearly 300,000 'ghost voters' in electorates controlled by the ruling People's National Congress, allowing for more instances of double voting and ballot fraud. Furthermore, the Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato is under pressure to answer questions about the printing of many extra ballot papers in excess of the number of voters on the roll, dubious ballot box distribution, and scheduling hiccups.
For now, with lobby camps forming, the focus is turning to the question of who will be the prime minister. Of course, it's still early in the vote count. Only about a quarter of the 111 seats have been declared. Yet the way things are shaping up, PNG has a rough idea of who the main players will be, ahead of an expected flow of most final results next week.
The People's National Congress, led by incumbent prime minister Peter O'Neill, stands a good chance of emerging with the most MPs again. But their number is likely to be far less than the 56 MPs it ended the last term of parliament with.
Individually, both the former ruling party, the National Alliance, and the rejuvenated Pangu Pati, are not too far behind PNC in the count, based on current results. Together, their numbers would surpass the PNC. Throw in other parties opposed to the PNC plus a bunch of independent MPs and there is a very real possibility of a new-look coalition government emerging.
It was always expected that there would be a large number of independent MPs and one-man parties in the new parliament who could collectively hold the balance of power. The PNC supported a number of independent candidates through their campaigns, explaining why a couple of those who have already won their seats have immediately joined the PNC camps.
Various opposition leaders have called for independent MPs-elect not to be swayed by financial inducements when deciding on which coalition to support. According to Pangu Pati's leader Sam Basil, the PNC is offering 1-million kina each to independent candidates who commit their support to its coalition. That's a tempting offer for candidates who have spent every toea they have on campaigning. But as any teacher, nurse or policeman in PNG will tell you, they have trouble getting paid regularly these days, such is the cash shortage in the government machinery. Therefore, any independent candidate expecting that 1-million kina payment to actually materialise is advised not to hold their breath.
Still, there are positions up for grabs, distribution of which could well decide which coalition the smaller parties go with. For instance, with the prospect of more big investment in PNG's Liquefied Natural Gas sector on the horizon, the United Resources Party leader William Duma could be reasonably expected to demand to take back the Minister for Petroleum and Energy portfolio.
But enough talk, it's time to look at the likely contenders for the post of prime minister when the new parliament sits next month.
Note, some of the following "contenders" haven't yet been declared winners of their seat. Also note that unfortunately there are no women in this list - at time of writing it looks like two of the three female sitting MPs have been ousted, and not many of the other women candidates remain in the race in their electorates.
As savvy a political player as any in PNG, O'Neill has defeated pretty much everyone who has tried to break his grip on the Prime Minister's position since 2011. But having now completed his first full five-year term at the top, his public image is nothing to write home about, the economy is under immense strain, and his free education and health policies have been patchy, to put it mildly. It's not easy being incumbent prime minister, almost everyone takes shots at you. O'Neill has often responded to criticism by saying that he should judged by people at election time. Ideally, that's how it works in a free and fair election, but there's a growing perception in PNG that the flaws of this election were by design, something this prime minister could find difficult to shirk should he prevail in the next week or two. Although still the favourite, O'Neill may yet fall short of the numbers he requires in parliament, given the enemies he has created - enemies who are now converging, driven by a common aim: to remove the PNC from government.
Having rejuvenated PNG's oldest political party into a serious national political force after years in the wilderness, Basil has gained significant momentum in this election and is spearheading a people power movement seeking change. Few politicians have done as many hard yards travelling out to remote rural parts of their constituencies as the Bulolo MP. Basil was a key part of a tiny parliamentary opposition for the last parliament term, that made great efforts to hold the government to account in the face of increasing power amassed around the executive. He and the new-look Pangu have been given the blessing of PNG's father of independence, Sir Michael Somare, in a tacit endorsement of opposition to Peter O'Neill. Given that Sir Michael stormed across the floor of parliament a few years ago threatening to kill Basil, that's quite a turnaround. Yet anyone who saw the grilling he gave the government during the debate over a controversial, albeit unsuccessful, vote of no-confidence in the PM last year will know that Sam Basil has the chops to lead.
Another leader who has not been afraid to direct stinging criticism at the government when most MPs stay silent because they are afraid of jeopardising their access to district funds. Kerenga Kua has intellectual and political clout which marks him out as a leadership option for those looking to remove the PNC. A sound legal mind who was briefly Attorney-General in the last term until falling out with O'Neill when the prime minister refused to go in for questioning by anti-corruption agents probing a major fraud case. His National Party may not end up with as many MPs as the National Alliance or Pangu Pati, but should he enter into a coalition with them, Kua could be that middle option for the prime minister's role. An outside chance.
Not to everyone's liking, due to his odd brush with the leadership code, and his having been a central part of two governments that became unpopular. Pruaitch is nonetheless the leader of a well established and well-financed party, the National Alliance, which could end up with the second highest number of MPs. He has steered the NA ship for several years now, following Sir Michael Somare's departure from the party. Sir Michael and his family's links to Pruaitch and the NA remain strong. A problem for Pruaitch's image though could be his history of links to the logging industry. He did however signal some sort of a break with the past when he spoke out a few months ago as Treasurer, revealing that PNG's economy had "fallen off a cliff", following which he was sacked by Peter O'Neill. Some say Pruaitch was just posturing before the election, asking why Pruaitch didn't speak out sooner given the depth of the problem. His answer: "Imagine if I was not there - it would be far worse than what it is today. I was there making sure that the prime minister limits himself." He certainly believes in himself.
Sir Mekere Morauta
Avowed political enemy of O'Neill, particularly through their ongoing wrestle over Ok Tedi and the lucrative Sustainable Development Programme, Sir Mekere had retired from national politics after the 2012 election. But he was prompted him to come out of retirement and contest this election over his deep concern at the PNC's management of the national economy and what he alleges is a corruption network with octopus-like tentacles in charge of government. He stood as an independent in the Moresby Northwest seat where voters have emphatically rejected the sitting MP, Health Minister Michael Malabag. Sir Mekere is a former prime minister with a background as an economist, who was widely credited with bringing PNG back from the brink of economic collapse at the turn of the century. He introduced reforms which helped lay the foundations for a period of economic and political stability in the decade that followed. Sir Mekere says tough decisions now need to be made to rescue PNG's economy. An independent MP can technically be PNG's prime minister, and he is certainly an option for any coalition with like-minded parties who wish to, in his words, "kill the Octopus".
Enga's "favourite son" cannot be underestimated. His Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party is not faring as well as expected so far in this election. But as the incumbent opposition leader, and having held various senior positions in government, Polye has significant mana and commands an almost messianic following among his supporters. Not without his critics, and a serial defendant in election disputes, he has nonetheless been a strident opposition leader who, unlike many MPs in PNG's parliament, has formulated coherent policy platforms, notably on agriculture, economy and education. His THE party is not likely to get anything near the 12 MPs it won in the last general election, half of whom defected to O'Neill's party within months of the polls. A man who does not give up and who is still relatively young, Polye could yet be the man to lead the nation.
ONES TO WATCH
There are elements within the People's National Congress who would like to see the Alotau MP as their party's leader. Widely respected and clearly above the rump of the PNC pack in terms of work ethic and talent, Abel has youth on his side, but must soon decide whether to push for it. Does he even want it? Unlikely to launch a coup against O'Neill any time soon, Abel is still a key to their chances of future success.
If the election of PNG prime minister came down to a social media poll, the young Governor of Oro province would likely make the playoffs. Juffa has shown rare gumption in the PNG political scene by standing up to illegal loggers, thinking outside the tribal mentality and generally holding power to account. Articulate and connected to the grassroots, his tendency for straight talk has won him many admirers, although he probably currently lacks the money base to be able to build a coalition behind him. One for the future.
Very influential and one of O'Neill's trusted deputies, the People's National Congress strongman has been flying around the countryside to welcome newly-elected independent MPs. He's a friendly face, if you will, to help initiate them into the big whanau that is parliament. You could call him a political human resources manager. Frankly, Marape's political nous has been incredible as his winning figures in Tari Open indicate. Marape was declared the winner by the Electoral Commission with just over 50 per cent of a total of 60,000 votes that were reportedly cast in his constituency - which is amazing given the electoral roll had only about 40,000 eligible voters in the electorate.
A lawyer by profession who hasn't let being at the centre of one of PNG's biggest fraud scandals hold him back from embarking on a political career. Showed his intent by creating a political party with the most amount of candidates in this election. The Grassroots United Front party, or GRUF (not to be mistaken for GRAFT) fielded candidates in all 111 seats, none of whom are understood to have made it anywhere near the top five in vote counting so far. Nothing if not ambitious, Paraka has however launched a petition against the conduct of the election in the National Capital District regional seat where he is seeking to be Governor. He's not out yet.
If any learned commentator of PNG politics is still reading this article, they'll be shaking their head. They will tell you that no one can ever predict what twist PNG politics will take next.
There's also no guarantee that the overall vote counting, with all its disruptions to date and grievances yet to be resolved, will finish as expected next week. In fact, the PNG Electoral Commission has repeatedly shown that deadlines can be flexible.
Indeed it is a brave person who bets on the outcome of a PNG election. But one thing is for sure: it is never a dull ride.