Fears of more violence as Polye defeated in Kandep

5:06 pm on 3 August 2017

Enga Province is bracing itself for more violence after another big name of Papua New Guinea politics lost his seat in the general election.

Don Polye, who was the incumbent opposition leader and head of the Triumph Heritage Empowerment party, has been defeated by Alfred Manase for the Kandep Open seat.

Don Pomb Polye on the PNG  election trail

Don Pomb Polye on the PNG election trail Photo: Supplied/ Wanpis Ako

The Kandep seat was one of several electorates where a result was still not finalised when PNG's tenth parliament began yesterday on the back of a lengthy election rife with electoral roll failure.

Today the Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato confirmed the result, which consigns a Highlands political heavyweight to the margins for the immediate future.

Alfred Manase has vyed with Don Polye for the Kandep seat in previous elections and always fallen short until now. Unlike previously, Mr Manase this time had the backing of the ruling People's National Congress party which threw significant resources into ousting Mr Polye from parliament.

However the decision of the Kandep Returning Officer Ben Besawe to set aside a number of ballot boxes from Mr Polye's stronghold support areas almost certainly ensures the result will go back to the court of disputed returns.

But in the immediate term it raises fears of more violence in Kandep and Wabag, the capital of Enga Province where the seat's vote count took place. It was in Wabag two weeks ago that four people, including two policemen, were killed in gunfire exchanges related to grievances over the Kandep count.

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

Mr Manase subsequently admitted some of his supporters carried high-powered weapons, saying it was necessary because of the actions that Mr Polye's supporters traditionally took during elections.

Last month's violence forced a suspension of the count for around a week. But now, with confirmation of Mr Manase's win, allegations of unfairness are boiling over again.

Tension in Wabag

On the back of the Kandep result, Don Polye's supporters this morning burnt down several houses on the edge of Wabag town in Amala, the village of Enga's provincial administrator.

That's according to the Highlands Operational Western Divisional Police Commander, Mark Yangen, who has been based in Wabag for the election period. Contrary to reports on social media, he said no one died in Wabag today.

"As soon as these guys were coming in, all the village fled and all the houses were left empty. So they just came through the empty village and started burning all the houses," said Commander Yangen.

He played down reports that supporters of a losing Kandep candidate mounted a roadblock, saying police were controlling movement in and around Wabag. However reports on social media were linking outrage over the Kandep result to roadblocks along the Mt Hagen-Wapenamanda section of the Highlands Highway.

Enga was designated a security risk hotspot at the outset of this election. A hundred defence force troops are in the province, as well as dozens of corrections officers, and two mobile police squads.

"Manpower is no problem. We're just looking after the government properties in town" said Mr Yangen, who explained that whatever was happening out in villages and rural parts of Enga wasn't currently part of their beat.

Peaceful demonstration in Wabag town over election allegations in Kandep district, Papua New Guinea

Peaceful demonstration in Wabag town over election allegations in Kandep district, Papua New Guinea Photo: Supplied

Locals have expressed fear that although Wabag had been in lockdown since the killings on the 22nd of July, the security forces would not be able to contain a new outbreak of anger from those upset about the election. For now, the police commander said security forces were in control and Wabag town was "quiet, but tense".

Contentious count

The election-related violence over the Kandep seat seemed almost pre-ordained.

Killings and general unrest have marred previous Kandep elections. During this year's election, people of Wabag knew there would be trouble from the moment that armed supporters of the main Kandep candidates moved into town for the counting.

During this process, Mr Polye and his team had voiced concern that 21 ballot boxes were being set aside by the returning officer, Ben Besawe. After being petitioned on the matter, the Electoral Commissioner ordered Mr Besawe to include the boxes in the election.

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patalias Gamato fronts the media, 26 June 2016

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patalias Gamato fronts the media Photo: RNZI/Johnny Blades

But by the end of the vote count, after the final stage of elimination on preferences, it was confirmed by Mr Gamato that seven boxes remained excluded from the count. These boxes were from Don Polye's stronghold area, where his tribe is based.

While the vote count was suspended due to last month's violence, Mr Polye made a court application for the Electoral Commissioner to replace the Returning Officer overseeing the Kandep process. Earlier this week, the court refused his application.

Mr Gamato admitted that without being on the ground in Kandep himself, he had to place faith in the decision-making powers of the Returning Officer when it came to ballot boxes at the centre of tampering allegations.

"So what he does is he checks and if there are genuine reasons for disputes on a number of boxes, they put that aside, of course with the agreement of the scrutineers," Mr Gamato explained.

Mr Gamato, relieved that the parliament has finally begun and a government has emerged, said he did not think what had happened in Kandep was grounds to fail the election in that particular electorate.

"Most of the boxes were still ok," he said, explaining that any lingering challenge on this matter must go to the court of disputed returns, where dozens of cases are expected to be filed after this PNG election.

Earlier in the week, Mr Polye said he had appealed to his supporters and all people in the region to refrain from violent actions over this election. Yet his conviction that he was being cheated of a win in Kandep remained firm.

"The conduct of the Returning Officer has been very poor, very biased, vindictive and one-sided against me," said Mr Polye whose THE party has only won three seats in this election, a big drop from the 12 seats it won in 2012.

"The counting officers and the presiding officers in the counting room took sides in tearing my ballot papers, destroying them, some even chewing on the ballot papers to make them informal."

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

Apprehended scrutineers who destroyed materials at the vote counting place in Wabag town, 20 July 2017. Photo: Supplied

Towns in several Highlands provinces have witnessed election-related violence in recent days. Like Kandep, the towns of Kundiawa and Mendi have also recorded deaths due to the unrest.

These cases are all based around a common theme: claims that the election was manipulated or unfair. And with several election results in these provinces still not finalised, tensions are expected to remain high in the short term.