Final report finds PNG election marred by spectre of violence

1:25 pm on 29 March 2019

The Australian National University's final report of Papua New Guinea's 2017 election found that electoral violence was more widespread than previously noted.

Polling booth PNG election 2017

Polling booth PNG election 2017 Photo: RNZI/ Johnny Blades

The ANU has released a detailed analysis of the election based on evidence and data gathered by 258 observers across 35 teams.

The report's key findings echo preliminary assessments that the last edition of PNG's five yearly polls saw a marked deterioration from previous editions.

There were widespread serious irregularities, including voter intimidation, personation, underage voting, block voting and proxy voting.

Electoral misbehaviour and malfeasance, facilitated in large part by the poor state of the electoral roll, proved more widespread and more brazen than ever before.

Electoral violence was also more widespread than previously noted, featuring in all but three of the 69 electorates where the ANU observation team worked.

The team also documented 204 deaths due to election-related violence.

It acknowledged that some of these deaths may, in part, be attributed to longstanding grievances and tribal conflicts exacerbated or catalysed by the elections.

Furthermore, the report identified eight cases of large-scale destruction of property and the hijacking and destruction of numerous ballot boxes, "all of which were beyond the capabilities of the security personnel to prevent or contain".

Waiting to vote in PNG's 2017 national election, Morobe province.

Waiting to vote in PNG's 2017 national election, Morobe province. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The violence played out despite PNG deploying its largest ever security force operation for an election, with over 10,500 personnel taking part.

However, as with the broader election administration, security provisions for the 2017 election were decentralised and subject to funding shortfalls.

As well, three in five observer teams, including all 13 Highlands teams, witnessed police brutality, including the use of excessive force.

In Hela, Eastern Highlands and National Capital District observers witnessed security personnel driving their vehicles at speed into crowds in order to disperse those who had gathered.

The report said that in several locations security personnel were observed firing either warning shots or shots directly into gathered crowds. Civilian deaths resulted in Southern Highlands, Hela, Enga and Gulf provinces.

Despite this overwhelming security forces presence, security personnel proved largely unable to deter voting irregularities or to prevent serious election-related violence.

In contrast, the observers described security at the counting centres as tight, although more than half of all observer teams reported police harassment of scrutineers, local observers, counting officials and, in some cases, the general public.

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato under pressure at a media conference

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato came under huge pressure over irregularities in the 2017 election Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

The ANU report represented a far more critical take on the conduct of the election than that of the Melanesian Spearhead Group's observer report.

The MSG reported similar challenges regarding the electoral roll and voter manipulation, but barely mentioned violence.

However, the ANU report summarised that "poor standards and bad behaviour have become normalised", undermining confidence in the PNG Electoral Commission and the electoral process more broadly.

"Restoring confidence in the electoral process must be a priority moving forward," the report said.

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