PNG Judges Worry Traditions Abused To Bribe Voters

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Supreme Court upholds ruling nullifying Kairuku-Hiri election

By Todagia Kelola

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, Oct. 2, 2013) – The practice of distributing food and gifts in gatherings that coincided with an election has come under scrutiny in Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court. The court yesterday upheld a National Court ruling which nullified the 2012 election of former Kairuku-Hiri MP Paru Aihi but not before expressing concern about candidates’ abuse of traditional practices such as feasts and gift giving, which opened the door to bribery of eligible voters.

Mr. Aihi’s application for a judicial review of a National Court ruling which ousted him went before a three-man bench comprising Justices Ambeng Kandakasi, Dereck Hartshorn and Joseph Yagi. They all agreed that the review sought by the former MP did not have merit and that the judge’s findings in the lower court were in order. A by-election will now be held for the Kairuku-Hiri open seat.

However, it was the increasing incidences of bribery during polling periods that caught the eye of the court with Justices Kandakasi and Yagi slamming the practice by politicians to carry around cash, checks and goods to distribute to potential voters and the abuse of Melanesian traditional practices to increase chances of getting elected.

"Allowing this so called culture or custom of festivities, parties and giving of gifts will continue to allow for a muddying up of the election period and divert attention away from the important issues of a candidate’s, integrity, policies or plans for his electorate and how he or she proposes to achieve them.

"This is the only way to prevent what has become a cash-based election where the more money a person is prepared to throw away in cash handouts, parties and other benefits, the more likely they are to get elected," said Justice Kandakasi.

Justice Yagi decried what he described as the abuse of traditional events such as marriages, deaths, mediations, compensation and initiation where gifts, pigs, shell-money and other forms of traditional wealth were distributed.

"One such culture is the practice of big man handing out goodies during ceremonies and festivities. Sadly this culture has found roots and become entrenched during the electoral period," he said.

The criticisms by the judges will put the spotlight back on the conduct of the 2012 general election and whether the election victories of a number of politicians in the National Parliament today could be attributed to such practices.

The failure by authorities to investigate and prosecute election-related bribery in a timely manner also came under the radar with Justice Yagi urging them to be proactive, which would serve as deterrence to leaders and potential leaders.

"The consequence of inaction by responsible authorities to prosecute appear to have the effect of promoting and encouraging bribery and other illegal practices during the elections."

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