12 Aug 2020

Bougainville election underway today

9:27 am on 12 August 2020

Voters across Bougainville start heading to polling stations today as a critical regional election gets underway.

The vote also starts just days after Bougainville registered its first confirmed Covid-19 case when a young student flew into Buka from the mainland.

This comes as PNG had now recorded over 200 cases of Covid-19 and three people had died.

The upgraded Suhin Health Centre in Bougainville's Buka.

The upgraded Suhin Health Centre in Bougainville's Buka. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Melvin Levongo

440 candidates are contesting the 40 seats in the region's parliament, including 25 wanting the presidency.

The Big Issue

It has been called the most important election yet for Bougainville, because the core role for the next parliament will be negotiating the outcome from last year's non-binding referendum, in which 98 percent of Bougainvilleans chose independence from Papua New Guinea.

Many candidates are expecting a drawn out process in the negotiations. One expert on conflict resolution said similar processes in other places have taken up to 10 years.

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Photo: The Bougainvillean

The Bougainville Government itself had laid out a timetable to have negotiation with the PNG Government sorted in time for a resolution to be put to the PNG parliament in September next year.

For that to happen Australian National University academic, Gordon Peake, who had spent most of the last three years working as an advisor in Bougainville, said, as quickly as possible people needed to start laying the groundwork for talks.

The Candidates

It was something of a surprise when 25 people linked up to seek the presidency, which had been left vacant by John Momis's unwilling retirement.

He had wanted a third term but the Supreme Court ruled this would contravene the Bougainville Constitution. Momis said his rights were denied and that his absence from the poll had opened up a "can of worms."

But people like James Tanis, who was president from 2008 to 2010, and was standing again, said the large numbers were not an issue and the candidates sometimes campaigned together.

While there were three seats reserved for women, there were two women running for the presidency for the first time, and a number of women contesting open seats.

Community worker, Marilyn Havini said she had the impression attitudes were changing towards women as political leaders, not only amongst women voters, but men too, and she expects women could take open seats.

Counting the votes in Bougainville's independence referendum, December 2019

Counting the votes in Bougainville's independence referendum, December 2019 Photo: Jeremy Miller / Bougainville Referendum Commission

The Economy

It's well recognised the Bougainville economy is in a poor state. Both the PNG and Bougainville Governments have talked about the huge disparity between what the region generates for the national coffers and what would be required if it became independent.

It is for these reasons that there is strong support from many of the candidates for the re-opening of the controversial Panguna mine, but others are saying the landowner issues around the mine first need to be sorted.

There is a strong commitment, even from Thomas Raivet, John Momis's surrogate presidential candidate, to ensure the landowners make the decisions over whether or not mining be allowed. Some candidates want to stay away from mining and instead focus on what Bougainville has successfully done in the past, in terms of agriculture.

Activities such as copra and cocoa, or fishing, in what would be a substantial new exclusive economic zone, once independence is established. Tourism also had its supporters.


Bougainville had been taking extraordinary efforts to ensure that it kept Covid-19 out of the region. President Momis had said it lacked the capacity to cope with an outbreak, although it does have three quarantine facilities, set up with aid donor help. A State of Emergency, in place since March, is due to end on Friday this week.

Meanwhile, after the infected student arrived last week, the Bougainville Emergency Controller, Francis Tokura, issued specific requirements around polling stations for when voting starts.

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Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Mr Tokura, who is also the regional police commander, said all officials, candidates, scrutineers and security involved in polling, must wear face masks and clinical hand gloves, and use hand sanitisers and alcohol wipes.

Before entering the polling stations voters must wash their hands and wash them again on leaving, and maintain at least 1.5 metres of social distancing. The polling stations have to be at sites with adequate space to allow the social distancing. Depending on the space, no more than three voters can be in the polling booth at any one time.

The election is due to run until 1 September and all results should be available by mid September.