Category Archives: Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea – The Prospects of Presidentialism

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.

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.