The 2017 Papua New Guinea general election threw the complexities and challenges of democracy in the country into stark relief. Papua New Guinea’s elections are purportedly the most expensive per capita in the world; it is estimated that the 2012 election cost $US63 per voter, compared to a global average of $US5 per voter. The 2017 election was marred by widespread issues with the electoral roll, violent clashes, and long delays in counting for some seats. After polling wraps, ‘the election after the election’ begins; in a fragmented party system with a high number of independent MPs, governing coalitions are typically made up of large and often unwieldy numbers of parties. Ultimately, Peter O’Neill’s ‘grand coalition’ – made up of members of his People’s National Congress Party as well as various minor parties and independent MPs – managed to secure 60 votes to re-elect him Prime Minister. This contributes to a system which Ron May describes as “disorderly democracy”, and Jeffrey Steeves has called (in the Solomon Islands context) “unbounded politics”.
Papua New Guinea has a Westminster parliamentary system, inherited after independence from Australia in 1975. Westminster systems are common in the Pacific Islands region; of the 18 Pacific Islands Forum states (including Australia and New Zealand), half have Westminster systems, with presidential (or hybrid presidential) more common in the northern Pacific where the US influence is more apparent. The merits of Westminster systems in the Pacific – and specifically Papua New Guinea – have been debated at length. Westminster parliamentary traditions and Melanesian political cultures are seen by some scholars as incompatible: the combative nature of Westminster politics at odds with Melanesian traditions of consensus; the lack of a left-right political cleavage creating a fragmented party system and reducing the accountability function of a strong opposition; and geographically based political constituencies entrenching ethnic and cultural divides. Reform attempts, most notably the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC), have largely focused on strengthening the party system and reducing the frequency of changes of government, to limited effect. It has been argued by May that Papua New Guinea’s weak and fragmented party system, previously the cause of frequent government turnover, has now facilitated the rise of ‘executive government’, in which the executive exercises near-absolute power in the absence of both a strong parliamentary opposition and stringent accountability measures.
A presidential system for Papua New Guinea has been proposed in the past, notably by Governor of the National Capital District and leader of the Social Democratic Party, Powes Parkop. A presidential system has already been adopted at sub-national level in Papua New Guinea, in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, where a president is directly elected for five-year terms. Creating an executive branch separate to the legislative branch would distinguish national-level policy-making from the district-level service delivery function that current Papua New Guinea MPs tend to prioritise (and for good reason, as it is crucial to their chances of re-election). Furthermore, presidential elections would in theory focus on national policy over local interests, the former oft-cited as missing from parliamentary elections. The PNC-led government has already proven itself committed to decentralisation, and in a context with more provincial autonomy a presidential system could prove to be a national unifier. Yet a presidential system would of course not solve the issue of executive dominance as identified by May and others, and indeed has the potential to exacerbate it.
So is a presidential system the answer? A change to a presidential system would not be a panacea to Papua New Guinea’s political challenges, and could potentially give rise to other problems. Yet, in a discussion on Papua New Guinea’s political future, it is a question worth asking. The Pacific region provides potential models for political reform, including Kiribati’s hybrid system in which a directly elected president is still subject to votes of no confidence by the legislature (but a successful vote of no confidence automatically dissolves the House, creating a disincentive to overuse). As other aspects of constitutional reform, including around decentralisation and guaranteed women’s political representation, have already been raised by the Papua New Guinea government, there is potential space for debate on the structure of the political system itself.