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By James Chin

CANBERRA, Australia (March 25, 2002 – Canberra Times)---With elections due in July, politics in Papua New Guinea is becoming busier than usual.

Since a Bill was passed in 2000 forcing parties to register formally with a new institution called the Registrar of Political Parties, 43 have applied and all of them have fronted up with their K 10,000 (about US$ 2,755) registration fee. The Bill, far from discouraging frivolous candidates and political parties, has simply added a K 10,000 price those wishing to try their luck in July must pay.

The chattering class in Port Moresby is now of the opinion that the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Bill may not be the answer to PNG's notorious "yo-yo" politicians. There is a gradual realization that nothing short of divine intervention can stop the Machiavellian activities of the politicians and their parties. The only big winner will be the lawyers, who will have a field day in court after the elections when candidates and parties take their gripes to the judiciary. One well-known lawyer in Port Moresby who played a major role in getting the Bill enacted is known to charge a minimum of K 25,000 (about US$ 6,888) for election petitions.

But the really important question — Can there be a free and fair election? — remains. Elections have been held regularly in PNG since independence in 1975, but whether the Electoral Commission can conduct a free and fair election is far from certain.

In every election, there are more voters than the adult population. The Electoral Commission, with help from the Australian Election Commission and AusAID, has been trying to clean up the electoral roll, but it is still riddled with ineligible and phantom voters. There is increasing frustration that the roll for July will be even more corrupt than for the last election in 1997.

If that is not bad enough, everyone is asking if it is even possible to hold polling in the Southern Highlands province. The province has broken down completely since last year when the governor was removed by a Leadership Tribunal. Coupled with tribal warfare that has claimed more than 200 lives already, it's a real "cowboy country" where residents carry arms openly. Police withdrew from the province when they were outgunned by the warring tribes. The MPs from the province are also at loggerheads and the only chance is for the central Government to declare emergency rule.

Generally the situation in the highlands is not conducive to polling. There are lots of high-powered weapons floating among the tribes to be used during the elections. Many were stolen from the Defense Force armory two years ago; others came from Bougainville (where ex-combatants are selling them) and across the border in Indonesia and Australia. Drugs and alcohol are also expected be major cause of problems during polling when candidates supply them to their supporters. Mt Hagen, the biggest town in the highlands, with roads leading to all the other highland provinces, is awash with candidates setting up private militias to ensure their victory in July.

Another province with problems is Sandaun (West Sepik), next to Irian Jaya. An incumbent MP is trying to ensure a group of supporters living on the border is given the vote on the coming polling day. But many believe this group is living 200 meters (660 feet) across the Indonesian border. Guns and booze will also be a major problem as Jayapura, the capital of Irian Jaya (Papua), is just an hour away from Vanimo, the capital of Sandaun. Smugglers have been making a killing bringing the much cheaper goods and fuel from Indonesia to be sold in PNG. Guns are also readily available in Jayapura and the going rate for a pistol there is a paltry K 300 (about US$ 83).

Big business and banks are also concerned about the coming election. Some of the bigger companies (and embassies) have plans to move women and children out of the country during the crucial period in July and August.

There is real fear that should widespread violence erupt, all the banks will shut down, leading to a shutdown of the whole economy. Banks are already refusing to cash large checks, fearing that the money will be used to buy guns, drugs and support during the election.

Ironically, Bougainville, an island at war for the past decade, may present the least difficulty. The peace process has appeared to be progressing slowly and many Boungainvillians believe they must vote in the election to bring in new leaders who will move it forward.

On top of these concerns, the army mutiny this month raises questions about plans to use the Defense Force as part of the security detail for the election. There is clear evidence that some former and present solders will be used in private armies of certain "big men" to intimidate voters. Many of the solders who were retrenched or retired from the force in the past two years are now offering their services to intending candidates. Others from earlier mutinies are expected to stand as candidates. Ultimately, the present mutiny simply reinforces the point that fair and free elections in PNG may not be possible.

James Chin teaches politics at the University of Papua New Guinea.

His email address is [email protected]

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