Category Archives: Papua New Guinea

Bougainville – Momis re-elected President in lead-up to referendum on independence

John Momis has been re-elected President of Bougainville after elections held in the region last month. It will be the second term as president for the former Catholic priest and long-time figure of Papua New Guinean politics. Momis will head the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) as they move towards a significant milestone for the region – the upcoming independence election, which must be held in the five-year window that begins this month.

In a political environment where incumbent turnover is traditionally very high – in the legislative elections that were held at the same time as the presidential election, the turnover rate was 64 per cent – Momis saw off a field of eight other presidential contenders. Throughout the counting period, his lead looked secure and the final tally saw him over 30,000 votes ahead of his nearest competition, ex-Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) commander Ismael Toroama. Another ex-BRA candidate, Sam Kauona, placed third.

The referendum on independence was a prominent issue during the presidential election campaign. Yet while several presidential candidates notably used pro-independence rhetoric in their campaigns, the focus during much of the campaign was on the process of the referendum, rather than the outcome. In addressing the referendum issue during the campaign period, Momis emphasised his leadership record and framed himself as an experienced politician who was well-placed to lead Bougainville through the process towards referendum. His emphatic win, as well as public endorsements from unlikely quarters – including leaders of the Me’ekamui, a separatist group who in the past have refused to engage with the ABG – suggest that this tactic was successful.

Now that he has been elected for another five-year term, Momis faces several potentially contentious issues. There have been allegations of electoral fraud from some unsuccessful candidates, with legal action threatened. Furthermore, the possible re-opening of the Panguna mine remains a controversial topic. Formerly the largest open pit copper mine in the world, the Panguna site was closed in 1989 during the crisis. Shortly before the election, a new Mining Act was passed to regulate future mining activities, and in one of his first public statements after re-election Momis affirmed his intention to initiate talks with mining companies about the re-opening of the Panguna mine.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the referendum. According to the Bougainville Peace Agreement, it must be held before June 2020, subject to certain conditions relating to weapons disposal and good governance. The agreement also stipulates that the exact date must be decided by the ABG in consultation with the Government of Papua New Guinea, and – crucially – that the outcome of the referendum must be ratified by the Parliament of Papua New Guinea.

A diplomatic incident that occurred during the election period highlights the sensitivities around Bougainville’s current and future political status. In mid-May, an announcement by the Australian Government that they planned to open a diplomatic mission in Bougainville’s capital, Buka, caused outrage in Port Moresby. The Government of Papua New Guinea maintained that they had not been consulted over the plan. They responded by issuing a ban on Australians travelling to Bougainville on business or tourist short-term visas. The dispute was ultimately resolved after two weeks, with the Government of Papua New Guinea lifting the travel ban while claiming the diplomatic mission would not be opened.

Speaking publicly during the dispute in his role as caretaker President at the time, Momis characterised the ban on Australian travellers as “a breach of the spirit of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.” He called on both parties to work towards a resolution “so that the difficult task of managing the process of the referendum as well as the outcome of the referendum will be handled by all parties in a spirit of collaboration.” As Bougainville’s President for the next five years, he will have the leading role in that “difficult task”.

The 2015 Bougainville election – The presidential race

The presidential election campaign is currently underway in Bougainville, where polling for the third Autonomous Bougainville Government general election will begin on 11 May. The 2015 election marks the beginning of a five-year window in which the referendum on independence will be held, according to the Bougainville Peace Agreement. The presidential candidate who is elected will play a crucial role in the coming years as the future political status of the region is determined. There are nine candidates for the presidency.

One of those contesting is John Momis, the incumbent President. Momis has long been a prominent figure in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville politics. A former Catholic priest, he was instrumental in the writing of the PNG Constitution and was at one point Deputy Prime Minister. After losing the first Bougainville presidential election in 2005, Momis decisively won in 2010.

Momis, along with fellow candidates Ismael Toroama and Sam Akoitai, have run sustained and highly visible campaigns in the Northern region of Bougainville. Toroama was a commander in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) during the conflict, and is campaigning against other well-known pro-independence figures including Sam Kauona and Reuben Siara. He is from Central Region, where most (two-thirds) of the presidential candidates hail from. Akoitai was a leader in the Resistance (anti-BRA) movement during the 1990s. He came second in the 2008 presidential race, which was triggered by the death of Bougainville’s first President, Joseph Kabui. While he is from a younger generation than Momis, Akoitai too has extensive experience in politics at the national level. As the PNG Minister for Bougainville Affairs in the late 1990s, he was notably involved in the peace agreement negotiations. Other presidential candidates have also made their presence known in the Northern region, with many posters and banners displayed in Buka’s town centre, including those of Kauona and former Speaker Nick Peniai.

Both Momis and Akoitai head parties with organisational capacity, in a political context characterised in part by weak party structures. Along with the presidency, elections are also being held for the 33 open seats, three seats reserved for women and three seats reserved for ex-combatants in the House of Representatives. Momis founded the New Bougainville Party (NBP). There are many incumbent members in the NBP’s field of candidates for the legislative elections. Akoitai’s Bougainville Islands Unity Party (BIUP) has endorsed over 60 candidates in the open and reserved seats.

The upcoming referendum on independence is a key issue in the election campaign. Toroama’s campaign rhetoric is overtly pro-independence. Kauona’s campaign includes calls for “liberation” and a “peaceful process”. Momis and Akoitai both present themselves as experienced political operators committed to guiding Bougainville through the referendum process. Momis’s tagline is “honest and credible leadership”, while Akoitai’s slogan – also used by other BIUP candidates – is “it’s time to unite”.

This general election is to be the last before the referendum. While it must be held before June 2020, the exact dates and the wording are still to be determined, and the incoming President will have a significant role in making these decisions. Who will assume this responsibility remains to be seen, with a two-week polling period soon to begin, and results expected in early June.