Election unfairness linked to deadly violence in Enga

5:41 pm on 24 July 2017

Perceived unfairness in the vote count has been linked to deadly election-related violence in Papua New Guinea's Enga province.

The provincial capital Wabag remains tense and in lockdown after clashes between supporters of two rival candidates for the national election in one of Enga's open seats, Kandep.

Police have confirmed that at least four people, including two mobile squad officers, died in exchanges of gunfire in Wabag early on Saturday.

Supporters of election candidate Alfred Manase take to the streets in Wabag town, as violence erupts in Enga's provincial capital, 22 July 2017.

Supporters of election candidate Alfred Manase take to the streets in Wabag town, as violence erupts in Enga's provincial capital, 22 July 2017. Photo: Supplied

Frustrations had been building last week among supporters of various candidates over disruptions to the vote count for Kandep Open.

Although this electorate is in another part of Enga province, the count had been taking place in the provincial capital.

When fighting broke out in Wabag early on Saturday morning, police mobile squad officers tried to intervene, according to the Highlands Operational Western Divisional Police Commander, Mark Yangen.

"The supporters were clashing and the policemen went there to stop the fight, but then one of the gunmen turned on the police," he explained.

"So, two were dead and as a result, police shot that guy who was with a gun and the other one who was with a pump-action, but with the pump-action his tribesman took the gun away. But the M-16 was retrieved after the man was dead, the civillian."

The violence has forced another suspension of the count for the Kandep seat, which currently has Alfred Manase of the ruling People's National Congress party leading the sitting MP and opposition leader Don Polye.

Police say the gun fighting was largely been between supporters of these two candidates.

However a number of Kandep candidates earlier protested that the returning officer Ben Besawe had set aside at least fourteen ballot boxes from the counting.

This was despite a directive from the Electoral Commission that the boxes, which were understood to be from Don Polye's support base areas, should be included in the count.

Mr Manase said tribesmen of a disgruntled candidate shot at the returning officer in his vehicle on Saturday morning, prompting an escalation of violence.

"Fortunately the returning officer never even got a single bullet wound, but the car he was in was all riddled with bullets," he explained.

"His driver got injured, another official got a bullet wound. And then another couple of boys that normally look after the Returning Officer got injured as well. So people have learnt to take up arms to defend themselves in those kind of situations."

Mr Manase, who admitted that his supporters had been armed, said orchestrated violence was now a common feature of Kandep elections.

He has vied with Don Polye for the seat previously, ending up in the court of disputed returns, and blamed Mr Polye for trying to influence election officials.

Mr Polye's camp in turn blames Mr Manase scrutineers and supporters for disrupting the vote counting process, and generally lays blame with the People's National Congress for creating grounds for chaos in the Kandep seat.

Apprehended men who went on a rampage at the vote counting place in Wabag town.

Apprehended scrutineers who disrupted the Kandep vote counting place in Wabag town a day before the deadly violence broke out. Photo: Supplied

The PNC leader Peter O'Neill, who is seeking to retain the prime minister's role when parliament begins next month, has voiced disgust at the violence in Wabag.

"There is no excuse for the behaviour we have seen over the past two days, and those behind it will be brought to justice," he said in a statement.

Mr O'Neill characterised the Wabag clashes as an isolated incident in an otherwise peaceful election period.

However, earlier in the week, supporters of the losing candidate in the Finschafen electorate, Theo Zurenuoc, a PNC member who was speaker of parliament last term, went on a rampage and burnt down several school facilities and a police station.

Perceptions of unfairness

A Wabag local and former PNG deputy prime minister Sam Abal said local people were fed up with the spectre of violence around election time.

He explained that locals were especially uneasy when gunmen attached to the two leading Kandep candidates began coming to town as the election advanced.

According to Mr Abal, while in government until 2012, he tried to end the cycle of violence in his province.

"Because I realise that these guns and battles and violence and tribal fights are ingrained inside the blood of these Engans, so I said lose the guns and let's get on with development. Let's hold the shovel, let's grow vegetables and things like that."

Mr Abal, who is standing in the Wabag seat, says that in his electorate all ballot boxes were counted, unlike for Kandep.

"In Kandep, the count is all Manase's votes, and Don's are still out there, so that causes friction," he said.

"The Returning Officer which did that, he's probably to be blamed for that. Now Don's people are trying to get the RO to count theirs. And he's kind of being forced not to count them by the Manase faction, and so there's a gun battle."

PNG Police personnel are among the personnel tasked with ensuring a secure election who are under-resourced and in many cases have not been paid regularly for months

PNG Police personnel are among the personnel tasked with ensuring a secure election who are under-resourced and in many cases have not been paid regularly for months Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

Meanwhile, the police commissioner Gary Baki was due in Wabag today to assess the situation. It's understood that his assessment will play a part in the Electoral Commission's decision on when to resume vote counting, while the deadline for the return of writs has been extended to Friday.

It is not outside the realms of possibility that the Kandep election could be declared failed due to the volatility of the situation. However that in itself may pose a high risk of sparking more violence. The stakes remain high in this PNG election.

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