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.