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”.

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