Unfinished business of PNG’s election grows

4:04 pm on 22 August 2017

Results are still pending in two seats in Papua New Guinea's election, three weeks since the overall return of the writs.

Papua New Guinea's Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato.

Papua New Guinea's Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The Electoral Commission has confirmed that declarations are not finalised in two Highlands electorates that experienced deadly election-related violence in the past month.

The vote count for the Southern Highlands regional seat remains suspended due to clashes between supporters of rival candidates in the provincial capital Mendi which resulted in several deaths. Electoral Commission has ruled out failing the election as a number of parties in the province are calling for it to do.

Having been moved to neighbouring Western Highlands province, the Southern Highlands regional vote count was expected to resume this week. Yet the delayed result in the Southern Highlands seat has tested the patience of voters in a volatile region.

Under pressure to explain the ongoing suspension, the Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato said he had made preparations for the vote count to be shifted to Eastern Highlands capital, Goroka, as a neutral venue.

"But some Southern Highlands Provincial candidates went to court and asked the Court to have counting done in Mt Hagen (Western Highlands)," he explained.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner has confirmed that an election result in a second seat is yet to be finalised, despite earlier confirmation that it was. It only adds to the incomplete nature of the general election, two months after the country went to polls.

The National Court has put a hold on the return of writ for Kundiawa-Gembogl Open electorate in Chimbu province, ordering the counting of two disputed ballot boxes after lawyers for the former MP Tobias Kulang obtained the court order and asked for the count.

Mr Kulang, who is with the ruling People's National Congress party, was earlier this month charged with murder and inciting unrest in relation to violence in Kundiawa town during the vote count. Since then, the candidate Willie Gogl Onglo had been declared as the MP-elect. That declaration is now effectively revoked, as Mr Gamato said he had to comply with the court order or he would be in contempt of court.

"The two disputed ballot boxes were not counted," the Commissioner said.

"I, as Electoral Commissioner ordered the boxes to be counted. The Returning Officer did not count the two boxes during the counting and elimination processes."

Papua New Guinea's parliament.

Papua New Guinea's parliament. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Unresolved

The Electoral Commission has not explained the inconsistency between the Kundiawa case and that of Kandep Open, where the Commissioner's order for seven ballot boxes to be included in the count was also not adhered to by the Returning Officer.

This matter was at the heart of complaints by the ousted Kandep MP and former opposition leader Don Polye who was defeated by the PNC's Alfred Manase and is urging the Commission to review that declaration. Fighting between the supporters of these two Kandep rivals spiralled in Wabag town over the past month, lapsing into a wider tribal conflict that left at least 21 people dead before a ceasefire was reached last week.

Earlier this month Mr Gamato defended his decision to return the election writs to the Governor-general in order for the tenth parliament to begin three weeks ago, even when not all 111 seats had been declared.

MP numbers were already skewed since two men arrived at the parliament claiming to be the MP-elect for the Gumine seat in Chimbu province, with both of them refusing to vacate the chamber when their presence was holding up the swearing in of MPs. The embarrassing double declaration, not the only one in this election, remains unresolved and the Electoral Commission's confirmation of Nick Kuman from the PNC as Gumine's MP-elect is set to be challenged in court by the PNG Party's Lucas Dekena.

Now, with confirmation that the Kundiawa seat has not been declared, PNG's long and troubled election is further away from a conclusion than previously thought. Parliament had its grand opening today to mark the start of business as usual. But a sense of unfinished business prevails.

For some time yet it will be an incomplete parliament overshadowed by election disputes.

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