You can tell it is election time in Papua New Guinea. The country has sold out of loud hailers and the battle for public spectacle supremacy is on. In Port Moresby, convoys of four-wheel-drives festooned with palm branches and posters overtake each other in the city’s traffic, flashing their brake lights as loud hailers belt out their spectacular promises.
In a nation where cultural traditions and political allegiance to clan and local community remain strong, elections have functioned primarily as struggles between these social groups for power over wealth and resources, rather than polemical contests centred on policies. Community leadership has, for generations, been determined by the wealth and status of "big men".
During 37 years of independence, the Westminster parliamentary system has had a hard time competing with the continuity of "custom" and tribal ways of governance. This is one factor in explaining why all governments since independence in 1975 have been coalitions with no party gaining enough seats to hold power alone, and the high turnover of up to 60-80% of politicians at elections.
Following a 10-month leadership struggle between prime ministers Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill, the electoral contest will be fierce this year with a record 3435 candidates and 135 female candidates, the highest number since the first post-independence elections in 1977, aiming for only 109 seats in parliament. Stakes are also high as revenues from large resource extraction projects, such as PNG LNG, which is predicted to double the nation’s GDP, will exponentially increase over the next few years and access to power will mean access to prodigious wealth.
But as the nation begins to vote, the atmosphere in Port Moresby is laid back. Electoral commissioner, Andrew Trawen has announced preparations are now complete to deliver an organised election. Meanwhile, people at the grassroots have been calmly listening to campaign messages with a healthy dose of cynicism.
The nature of campaign rallies, somewhere between an agricultural show and carnival, are very much about the show. Candidates sweat it out delivering forceful and dramatic performances while potential voters sit back on the grass with umbrellas and an Esky or two full of drinks.
There are 46 political parties registered in Papua New Guinea, but candidates’ literature reveals many common policies. Nearly all are campaigning for good infrastructure, free education, better health services, water, electricity, proper housing and action against corruption. All are anxious to press home their campaign position of being at one with the needs of "the people".
Margaret Loko, who assisted with co-ordinating the development of the Equality and Participation Bill
, which reserves 22 seats in parliament for women and is yet to be passed into law, is contesting the seat of NCD (National Capital District) governor, supported by the National Alliance Party. She is one of many who firmly believe that true development in Papua New Guinea will not occur until women have greater political voice and representation.
Margaret Loko campaigning in Port Moresby June 2012 (source: Catherine Wilson)