by Maud Webster

The 2017 Papua New Guinea election was fraught with allegations, violence and anger. Yet the object of the disquiet – Peter O’Neill – was still re-elected as Prime Minister. He represents the People’s National Congress Party, which has been rising rapidly in popularity over the past couple of decades. In 2002, they were in opposition with two votes, but entered government in 2007. Now, they hold twenty-seven. O’Neill has held the position since 2011 and just about holds it still, by obtaining support from minor parties and scrabbling together support for his party’s re-election. Following coalition discussions, his vote support margin stood at sixty votes to forty-six.

The election itself was blighted by disorganisation and electoral roll irregularities, in addition to initial dissatisfaction with O’Neill’s first term. Voters expressed concerns about the chaotic economy, rife with extensive borrowing. Whilst statistics show growth in GDP, growth has dropped from 13.3% in 2014 to a mere 2% in 2016.

The election itself was an appalling farce. Arson and violence littered the campaign together with many reports of voter bribery and fraud. Despite voting finishing early in July, multiple parties disagreed over coalitions, with an opposition group of over forty MPs emerging. Known as the National Alliance, they intended to keep O’Neill from re-election – to no avail. It took until the 1st of August for his position to be decided.

The election itself was an appalling farce.

In the aftermath of the election, the new parliament began with government miscommunication – two MPs arrived for the same seat – and a power blackout. The array of MPs is hopelessly unequal: despite a very high number of female candidates, there are no female MPs in O’Neill’s new government. There also no (openly) homosexual MPs – this is fueled by the lack of LGBT+ rights in the country. Male same-sex sexual activity is prohibited by Section 210 of the Papua New Guinea Penal Code, and homosexual citizens often struggle to find jobs.

The citizens of Papua New Guinea are aware of the extensive corruption occurring in their country; at this moment in time, however, change appears difficult and unlikely. O’Neill is still Prime Minister despite allegations that he expropriated $31 million from public funds in June 2014 He actively covered up the claims, sacking the Chief of Operations and several deputy commissioners of the Police in an effort to suppress the scandal.

What have we heard from him since?

( Flag of Papua New Guinea via Wikimedia Commons )

Unlike the immediate attempted reforms we witnessed following Trump’s ascent to power, O’Neill has been relatively quiescent. Although he has already been in power for five controversial years, he is doing little to improve current social situations, and indeed not very much of anything. He’s been avoiding news coverage, and little has been heard from O’Neill over the past two months.

Issues such as gun violence, torture, and police abuse haunt the country. Human Rights Watch estimates that forty percent of the country lives in poverty, and the prevalence of rape and sexual assault is shocking. And yet, we find ourselves asking where are the voices baraging the government to try and change these facts?

Whilst Papua New Guinea will have to cope with this decision for the next five years, it is promising that students will continue to campaign – and are largely not afraid to.

It is a political system where power is largely concentrated in parliament itself, as seen by O’Neill’s appeal towards his fellow MPs, rather than the people of the country. Student activism has been the main form of citizen action towards the government over the past few years. This election has been no exception. Students often take note of what is occurring past the classroom and have in the past enjoyed some success in forcing the hands of politicians. Last year, when O’Neill was facing corruption allegations, students were strong in their campaigning, compelling their Prime Minister to act. Many students risk their places, even their lives, at University over campaigning; many universities disapprove of student action. Last year in June, the Papua New Guinea police shot four student protesters, as they tried to call for a vote of no confidence in O’Neill.

Whilst Papua New Guinea will have to cope with this decision for the next five years, it is promising that students will continue to campaign – and are largely not afraid to. It also seems important that, in time for the next election, there is the same high amount of female candidates standing for election – just this time at least one, out of 111 places, will hopefully be voted in. I hope that in light of this unsurprising, but seemingly poor, election choice, more people will use their voices to express their disgust at the inequality faced within their countries.

Featured image CC BY 2.0 APEC


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