Five years on from the chaotic and troubled political elections of 2012, the people of Papua New Guinea are facing another round of elections that may once again be rife with bribery, hold ups, hijacking of ballots, threats, coercion, exclusion of women, and multiple voting.
Struggling with huge debts from unregulated expenses in previous elections—Papua New Guinea’s 2012 elections are estimated to have been the most expensive in the world, at USD $63 per voter—the country’s Electoral Commission has been left with few options for attempting to orchestrate a process that resembles something like a free and fair election in 2017. Deploying the army to oversee and provide security for polling officials and voters is one possibility, as was the case during the 2007 elections, which were relatively peaceful compared to 2012.
Politics in Papua New Guinea adheres to the Westminster system—the exact same system used in the United Kingdom. However, that is about as far as the similarities go. Only proceeding to full independence in 1975, and encompassing a great diversity of peoples and tribes, the political climate in this young country has remained far from settled for decades. Recent tensions reached a new peak this summer when police fired live ammunition into a crowd of university students protesting against government corruption, wounding a number of people, and the current prime minister Peter O’Neill faced a no-confidence motion during July, which ultimately failed, but caused great disruption and frustration.
With the 2017 local and national elections looming, I reflect on my experiences documenting the run-up to Papua New Guinea’s fraught and unpredictable 2012 elections, which at one point, were even delayed by the cult killings of ‘sorcerers’ and reports of cannibalism in the jungle near Madang.
In the remote Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the contest for the 2012 national election was well underway.
It was clear that no expenses—and no lives—would be spared as ambitious individuals from all over the region led local voters on a two month festival that involved traditional costume, machine guns, ancestral belief, copious amounts of marijuana, and some of the most palpably optimistic and overtly corrupt political shenanigans on the planet.
The highlands of Papua New Guinea are fertile, resource rich, and in recent years, extremely volatile. Tribal warfare has always been a fixture here, and as early as 3,000 B.C. Melanesian people are believed to have inhabited the main island of Papua New Guinea, living in discrete groups isolated by dense forest. However, with population pressures causing migration and multinationals suddenly investing billions in mining, oil and gas projects in the region, violence is on the increase.
We travelled with Thomson Harokaqveh—the country’s Minister for Environment and Conservation at the time—on a pre-election visit to a village in the mountains around the district of Goroka. He explained that during his term as MP he had built a new road so that the villagers could get their coffee to market. The road still needed some work, however.
Finally arriving into the small settlement of Gamusi, Thomson was given a colourful and traditional reception. Villagers from all over the region had come to pledge their support for his campaign—in return for money, beer, marijuana, and policy promises that may or may not be fulfilled. As part of the performance and welcome, young boys from the village had shaved their heads and glued the hair to their faces in order to look like bearded dwarves. Considered to be good luck by many in Papua New Guinea, it is believed that dwarves can only be seen by children.
We learned that Thomson is believed to be half Australian, but to locals he sells himself as born and bred in Papua New Guinea. Addressing a group of villagers in his constituency, the intense sweat you see on his head below was the result of chewing a particularly strong betel nut, a narcotic that is popular in communities throughout the highlands.
As is the custom, Thomson was carried down to the main ceremonial ground on a litter woven from jungle vines and other foliage, where he gave a speech thanking the villagers for their support. During the speech he also pledged 15,000 kina for the development of their local school. He later confided to me that he knows this money will be siphoned off. “Here politics isn’t about ideology” he told me, “we haven’t got to that yet.”
Also in attendance at Thomson’s pre-election rally in Gamusi were a number of Huli wigmen, wearing colourful, traditional headdresses. Their ancestors have lived in this region for over 1,000 years.
While doing the rounds with Thomson, we also met Ellison Ketauwo, who was responsible for overseeing the electoral process in the Goroka district during the upcoming 2012 election. He told us that both cheating and intimidation are common, and that multiple incidences had been reported where entire ballot boxes have been hijacked or sabotaged on their way to counting stations. “No one has identity cards here, so it’s easy to cheat. People even include their dogs within their household.”
In the small village of Kimayao, Thomson again addressed his gathered constituents, pledging to help their community should he be re-elected. Alongside, the villagers share pumpkin and sweet potato from their traditional Mumu (earth oven). A fire is first built in a pit, and stones are then superheated on the embers before the food is placed in banana leaves on top, followed by a pig. The whole thing is covered with earth, and bamboo stems feed water to the hot rocks, which steams the food.
It was soon evident that cheating and multiple voting would represent only some of the challenges to be faced during the 2012 election, and as Thomson told us, “A lot of candidates are stockpiling arms. I could do this too, but it would just make things worse.” As more and more villagers get hold of automatic weapons, tribal warfare in the region is becoming increasingly violent. A few days before we began shooting this story, a long standing tribal fued in the neighbouring village of Kainantu resulted in sixteen people from the Kamono tribe being brutally murdered.
There is just one police officer for every 500 citizens in the Goroka district and recruitment levels continue to fall. The police are not only outnumbered but outgunned, as illegal arms continue to proliferate. Speaking with Acting Provincial Police Commander for Goroka, David Seine, he reinforced the deep concern among police about the presence of ever increasing illegal arms caches in villages prior to the 2012 election. Once again, there are now worrying reports from local commanders that illegal weapons are being stockpiled ahead of the upcoming votes in 2017.
Another major problem facing the highlands is the drug and arms trade. Marijuana, which grows in copious quantities throughout the Goroka district, is frequently smuggled out aboard ships operated by logging companies. The marijuana is then traded for Ak47s, M16s and RPGs coming from post conflict countries in Asia, especially from the neighbouring Indonesian province of West Papua. Echoing the concerns of local police, regarding the growing unrest and increased presence of arms, in early 2012 the Australian government laid plans to evacuate 15,000 expatriates in the event that the elections descended into anarchy.
The problems are exacerbated as foreign nationals and settlers are moving up into the highlands hoping to find work. Goroka, capital of the Eastern Highlands, is a veritable melting pot of cultures. It is home to both some of the most spectacular cultural exchanges on the planet and also to some of the most gruesome and ferocious intertribal fighting.
Most shops in Goroka are run by Malaysian and Chinese immigrants, who have arrived in waves since the sixties. Simmering local resentments at this monopoly and perceived mistreatment of Papuan employees spilled into violence in 2009, when a mob sought to burn down the stores.
There is also a very large missionary presence throughout the highlands, with missionaries often living in enclaves outside of each town. They play an active role in the elections and their aviation divisions hold the keys to a number of the easy votes from the country’s most remote communities, some of which were ‘non-contact’ tribes until as recently as 2009.
Alongside all of this, there are huge mining and resource extraction interests throughout Papua New Guinea, and foreign multinationals continue to throw money into the country. At the time of the elections in 2012, a cooperative led by Exxon Mobil had already invested $15 billion into tapping Papua’s reserve of natural gas in the southern highlands, with nine trillion cubic feet of gas already presold to China.
We found Papua New Guinea to be expensive, its economy catering mainly to the corporate interests that sustain it. Meanwhile a poor and under-educated population is short-term and partisan in its expectations, happy with handouts from politicians, and less concerned with long-term policy. “We’re trying to cram 300 years of development into twenty-five,” says 26-year-old Kenneth Manove, who is attending Thomson’s political rally. “But we’re actually three generations from the stone age.”
When the 2012 elections came around, they were indeed marred by controversy and conflict, ranging from the more extreme events, like the delays to voting as a result of the cult killings and cannibalism near Madang, to consistent reports of ballot box tampering and voter intimidation, particularly in the highland districts. In the province of Hela, voters tried to prevent the removal of the boxes by blocking roads out of the city and preventing take-offs from the airport, while others went to the local police station where the ballot boxes were stored, but were driven back by both police and Defence Force soldiers.
The election also followed controversy over incomplete electoral rolls and the 2011–2012 Papua New Guinean constitutional crisis between the disputed prime ministers of Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill.
It was hoped that throughout the 2012-2017 election interval the new government would continue to improve and strengthen the political environment in the country, and despite continued instability, some progress has been made. For instance, there are now three female MPs in the current parliament, compared to one woman in the previous parliament. However, particularly in light of the recent violence and protests, it is clear that many of the challenges the country faced during the 2012 election are still a significant obstacle towards achieving a process that will begin to come closer to a free, fair, and safe election.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
James Morgan is a photojournalist and film maker focused on projects that explore indigenous cosmologies and the human ecology side of the environmental movement.