Elections in Papua New Guinea are notoriously turbulent. 

For decades, voting has been dominated by reports of corruption, under-funded security forces, unfit electioneering processes, and violence. Election Day in 2012 saw ballot boxes destroyed and hijacked, while in 2017, physical altercations between rival clams caused the deaths of over 200 people.

With the 2022 election period all but complete, Global Citizen looks back at the past few weeks of tense voting, exploring reports of election-related sexual abuse, displacement, destruction, deaths, and violence. We also unpack how trust in the democratic process affects a country’s ability to have a free civic space and why, in 2022, this is more important than ever.

What Occurred This Year?

Once again, voting, which took place between early and late July, was marred by allegations of interference and fraud. As much as half of the eligible population had their names missing from electoral rolls, leading several analysts and MPs to describe the process as the worst they have ever seen.

Over 12,000 ballot papers were hijacked in one area in the Southern Highlands, according to SBS News.

Around 50 people, meanwhile, are reported to have been killed, and thousands have been displaced — mostly women and children, according to the United Nations.

"The violence in the Highlands, which runs nearly the full length of the island, has already forced an estimated 3,000 people … to flee their homes and has caused damage to schools and medical facilities, while businesses and markets have also temporarily closed,” read a UN press release. “Some roads have been deliberately cut off through the digging of trenches and destruction of bridges, resulting in disruptions in the delivery of goods and services to these communities.”

The UN also makes note of “heinous” sexual violence against women, including at least eight girls. 

What Did the Violence Stem From, and How Was This Allowed To Happen?

In Port Moresby, the capital, violence arose after citizens became suspicious as to why ballot boxes and polling teams still hadn’t arrived almost four hours after advertised. Police were called to respond to a “rowdy and quarrelsome crowd,” who disrupted polling, threatened to harm election officials, and promptly opened fire, eyewitnesses told the ABC.

"Rocks were hurled at police, and gunshots were fired to disperse the unruly crowd," police said in a statement.

Some candidates themselves also produced and prompted violence.

In Enga, a province in the country’s north, reports have circulated surrounding some candidates' questionable morals, with rumors that some leaders and their supporters have attacked opposing contenders. As a result, a military and police personnel task force was established on July 17 and sent to Enga to "restore law and order."

Why Does Papua New Guinea Fail to Ensure Fair, Safe, and Credible Elections?

Australia’s DevPolicy Blog puts it bluntly, but concisely, when it states that most politicians in Papua New Guinea aren’t concerned about electoral quality. The reason, they explain, lies in the voter-politician relationship, which sees citizens throughout the country vote based not on national issues but on who they think will most likely help them and their families.

"Because candidates want to be elected, and MPs re-elected, voting for personal or local benefits has a harmful side-effect. It causes MPs to focus on channelling state resources directly to their supporters,” the policy think-thank writes. “They do this at the expense of national governance and national issues. Elections are a national issue.”

"Sitting MPs are likely to benefit from poorly run elections; they’re much easier to subvert locally,” DevPolicy adds.

Why Is an Open Civic Space So Vital to Free and Open Societies?

Open civic space refers to the ability of citizens to influence the political, economic, and social structures around them through peaceful assembly, expression, and association. Free civic space means governments and individuals can have open and constructive dialogues without fear of violence, with prompt and reliable information easily accessible.

Attacking or jailing those who raise concerns is a key way governments impede civic freedoms.

The UN’s Global Goals — a set of targets designed to end poverty and inequality — explicitly state that inclusive, sustainable development cannot be achieved without active citizen engagement.

International development agency ACFID agrees.

"Amidst a rise in authoritarianism, populism, and misinformation globally, maintaining free and open civic space is essential to promoting inclusive governance and enabling two-way feedback loops between people and their governments,” the organization explains.

What Was the Election Outcome?

As of mid-August, vote counting has been all but finalized, with just a handful of seats still to be announced.

James Marape was officially re-elected Prime Minister on Aug. 9. In major news, two women — ​​Rufina Peter and Kessy Sawang — also secured seats in the parliament, becoming just the eighth and ninth women to ever be elected in Papua New Guinea’s history.

Marape’s Pangu Party will lead a coalition government, with the party announcing they plan to center their policy goals around offering robust education, health, and stability for all.

Elections in Papua New Guinea are typically held every five years.

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By Madeleine Keck