Papua New Guinea Election Observers Find Mixture of Improvements and Irregularities

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HONOLULU (July 19, 2012) – An international delegation of election observers supported by the U.S. Department of State and organized by the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP) monitored the recent month-long general elections in Papua New Guinea. The mission included election specialists, former government officials, academics and civil society representatives from Australia, the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands and the United States. The delegation was headed by Dr. Gerard A. Finin, Co-Director of the PIDP.

EWC election observer James Whippy from the University of Guam (left) with a local PNG observer for Transparency International.In its preliminary statement the delegation congratulated the government on holding elections in accordance with the timeframe laid out in its constitution, and applauded the people of Papua New Guinea for “enthusiastically exercising their democratic rights in selecting the next government.” The statement, issued jointly with the United States Embassy in Port Moresby, praised election officials’ hard work and professionalism, [LINK] finding that voting in numerous parts of the country “appeared to be largely free and fair,” but also noting the process in other areas exhibited some “serious irregularities.”

The initial assessment was based on observations by U.S. diplomatic personnel, the work of the EWC’s international observers, and assessments shared by other domestic and international observers. The statement noted, however, that “the counting process for the 2012 elections is still ongoing, so our assessment is still preliminary and based only on the campaign and polling phases that concluded as of July 6.”

Specifically, the preliminary observation assessment found that:

  • “In some parts of the country, including New Britain, New Ireland, Manus, and parts of the Central region, the campaign and polling phases of the 2012 elections appeared to be largely free and fair despite the occurrence of irregularities that we do not believe materially impacted the outcome of the vote. In other regions of the country, including the National Capital District, the Highlands, and Momase, the elections appeared to be passable; however, observers witnessed serious irregularities that called into question the integrity of the secret ballot and the ability of all qualified, registered citizens to cast their vote. It is possible that these irregularities may have impacted the outcome of the vote in certain constituencies.

  • It is our considered assessment that irregularities that were observed in the voting process were in large part not the result of action directed by any government entity or political party. Rather, they were the unintended consequences of poor logistical organization, inadequate training for poll workers, and local attempts to address both the challenge of illiterate voters and the desire to inculcate ethnic traditions designed to minimize conflict into the polling process.

  • Violence and attempts to steal ballot boxes and election materials in the Highlands during both the campaigning and polling periods may have impacted results in certain areas. The apparent omission of large numbers of voters from the electoral roles and their resulting disenfranchisement is a serious concern nationwide. Logistical problems with polling times and locations in the National Capital District and Morobe resulted in additional disenfranchisement. Observers in the Highlands, Momase, and the National Capital District witnessed widespread issues with the marking of illiterate voters' ballots by others without adequate consultation to discern the voters' intent. In the Highlands and Momase, widespread traditional practices which had the impact of having voters publicly declare their vote violated the integrity of the secrecy of the ballot.”

Open-air voting in New Ireland province.Despite such problems, the observers also witnessed a number of positive initiatives during the 2012 elections. According to their statement: “The establishment of separate polling places for women in the Highlands was a significant step forward. The proactive approach of security forces removed a significant number of weapons from circulation and likely prevented more widespread violence, while simultaneously disrupting a number of attempted thefts of election materials.”

Moving forward, the observer’s statement said, “It will be important for the next government to work closely with civil society, the Election Commission, political parties, and international donors to adopt electoral reforms. Our recommendations for priority areas of focus include: reform of the registration process and production of the electoral common roles; introduction of provisional ballots for those who were inadvertently omitted from the roles; redesign of the ballot to allow illiterate voters to vote without the need for assistance; and consultation with communities in the Highlands and Momase on ways to utilize traditional means of preventing inter-ethnic conflict without compromising the integrity of the secret ballot.”

Download the Election Observation Mission’s full statement here.