Bougainville candidates eagerly await count

7:59 am on 29 August 2020

After six weeks of campaigning and voting just shy of two weeks, the 440 candidates in this year's Bougainville election are now sitting around waiting for the count to begin.

A tentative date of June 15th 2019 has been set for a referendum on possible independence in the Autonomous Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville.

Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Voting ended early this week and counting is due to start on 2 September, but could be a day or two later.

There had been an expectation, with the vote finishing inside two weeks despite three weeks being set aside for the process, that counting would start sooner.

But the Electoral Commissioner George Manu said his legal advice was that starting the count before the prescribed time amounted to tampering, so he won't be allowing it.

In the election the people had a series of votes to make - for president, women's and former combatants, and for the open seats - and Manu said the word from returning officers was that some of the voting papers had ended up in the wrong boxes.

He said this would need to be sorted before the count.

"We might even start a bit later, maybe the third or fourth because of the sorting out of misplaced voting papers.

"There have definitely been misplaced voting papers - ROs [Returning Officers] and presiding officers have advised me of that."

No caption

Photo: Central Bougainville Electorate Updates & Development

Bougainville's retiring President, John Momis, called for the maintenance of law and order amid concerns unsuccessful election candidates would cause disruption.

He said rumours had been circulating unhappy candidates may not accept the results and there could be interference with the vote count.

But the president said the great majority in Bougainville was law abiding.

"I went on air recently to call up on everybody - it's in the best interests of an emerging nation such as ours to maintain the rule of law."

"Rule of law is the essence of democracy. I think most people would have taken notice of that," he said.

Momis said the police were prepared if any violence erupted.

The outcome of the poll is no worry for first time candidate Helen Hakena. As far as she's concerned the Northern Women's seat is hers.

Hakena, who ran the Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency for years, said she was confident she had all the backing she needed.

"The leaders, the women leaders, the church leaders, the chiefs. When I went out to campaign they were very happy to see me and they were telling me they were going to vote for me because I had worked with the people, I know their issues, I have been with them, I have spoken out for them, particularly to defend people's human rights.

"So that is why I am very confident.'

Helen Hakena.

Helen Hakena. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

25 candidates contested the presidency, and it is impossible to say how it might go.

One of the candidates, another first timer, is the former head of the Papua New Guinea Weather Service, Sam Maiha.

He too was quietly confident, but he had a Plan B just in case.

Having lived away from Bougainville for much of his adult life most people didn't know Maiha, but this may not have counted against him.

"For me to be a stranger it is also a plus. So that message that I was not supposed to be there was an eye opener for them [the voters] too. If this guy with all this international exposure could be the one that is going to come and help us. So that kind of resonated."

It was a different case for James Tanis, who had been president before from 2008 to 2010.

Tanis said he was hamstrung by a lack of resources to get around in the campaign but he was philosophical about the outcome.

"I am a peace builder and if I don't get into the position of the president I will find some way to make myself useful in the peace process."

Tanis also promised to look out for the other 24 if he was the successful one.

John Momis had been a central feature in Bougainville's political life for 50 years but a feature of the latest election was the call for change.

Momis acknowledged that, but said the prime concern for most Bougainvilleans remained achieving self-determination.

"People are determined that straight after the declaration of the new government consultations will take place, consultations between the national government and the ABG.

"Consultations will be over the 98.2 percent referendum result. Apart from services and so forth, people want to, once and for all, sort out this matter of self-determination."

The hope was that negotiations over the referendum outcome could be completed inside one year, after which the result would go to the PNG parliament for ratification.

Momis said it was critical the process be concluded before the PNG national elections in 2022.

Bougainville President John Momis

Bougainville President John Momis Photo: supplied