A Very Important Election

Image by AFP

By Neville Togarewa

April 27th is PNG’s date with destiny. The National General Elections kicks off with the issue of the writs on that day and its going to be the biggest and most important election in PNG’s 36 year of political Independence.

Biggest because there will be 41 or more registered political parties contesting, which is at least 10 more than in the last election in 2007, there will will be more candidates; they will spend millions of kina more than in the previous elections; and voter turnout is predicted to be better than the 2007 election.

And it’s a very important election for several reasons.

Firstly, the 2012 polls will be the eight post-independance genearl election since the first one was held in 1977 – the previous election was in 1972 – and it comes after nearly four decades of what has been a long priod of trial and error by succesive governments to find the best possible path for human development, growth, progress and prosperoty for the majority of the sevean million people who live in rural PNG.

Secondly, PNG’s economy going into any election since Independence in 1975 has perhaps been the most robust so far, and with the coming on stream of the multi-billion Kina LNG project in 2014, the new post-2012 government will – unlike its seven predecessors since Independance – have the luxury of billions of kina in revenue flows at its disposal for annual budgetary appropriations to do what it must do for the people.

The new government’s priority agenda should therefore be on how it must adequately fund and effectively deliver services for the rural majority and thereby improve PNG’s currently very poor human development indices with respect to infant and maternal mortality, school enrollments, acess to clean water and sanitation, malnutrition, gender equality, poverty etc and help grow the national economy and develop and progress the nation for the benefit of everyone.

Thirdly, it’s obvious that that the era of PNG’s constitutional founding fathers represented by Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare, Sir Julius Chan, John Momis, Sir John Kaputin, Sir Mekere Morauta and Sir Rabbie Namaliu, among others, is but all over.

It’s now the dawn of a new era for a new generation of leaders to accept the honour and priveledge of planting their feet firmly on the foundation laid by our founding fathers at independence and to chart a new course and steer the MV PNG through the next 50 years to our first century as an independant soverign state and a proud member of the international community of free and progressive nations.

This is the scenario for PNG as we go to the 2012 polls. But some commentators are predicting that with respect to the Highlands region, the 2012 elections may be the most dangerous and volatile so so far. This is understandable:

  • Some candidates are ready to spend millions of kina during their campaigns, and money does not have conscience or blood lines for that matter;
  • Like past elections there’s a very real sense risk of vote buying and corruption;
  • There is a serious law and order problem in most parts of the Highlands region;
  • There is widespread possession and use of illegal and factory made highpowered firearms in all the seven provinces of the region;
  • And there is a real possibility of civil disruptions to political campaigns, polling, counting or declaration of winning candidates.

These are the reasons why the Australian media wrote PNG off in the last election in 2007, saying it was going to be a failed election. We proved them wrong. Are we going to prove our critics wrong again this time round?

As PNG Defence Force Chief if Staff Col. Tom Ur put it about a month ago: “The eyes of our friends, neighbours and the international community will be on us.” This is the main concern of the Electoral Commission headed by Chief Commissioner Andrew Trawen and the top brass of the Royal PNG Constabulary and PNG Defence Force under the command of Commisioner Tom Kulumga and Commisioner Brig. Gen. Francis Agwi respectively who will be assisting with logistics and security for the election.

But as far as the majority of Highlanders are concerned, law and order, use of firearms and possible disruptions are secondary issues. For them, these issues are the responsibility of the government and it must be ready to respond quickly, decisively and in approproate manner as and when needed to ensure peace, good order and integrity of the election.

What most Highlanders are more interested in now is whether certain members of their current crop of MPs and leaders will return to take their place when the new Parliament convenes in August to elect the new Prime Minister and the new regime.

This appears to be the topic of discussion on the streets, homes and ‘ples singsing’ in towns, urban settlements and rural villages on the plains, in the valleys and mountain tops from Eastern Highlands to Simbu, Western Highlands, Enga, Southern Highlands and the two new provinces of Jiwaka and Hela.

On top of the list of leaders who will be defending their sears are Ialibu Pangia MP and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, Provincial MP’s including Western Highlands Governor Tom Olga and his counterparts Peter Ipatas (Enga), Anderson Aigiru (SHP), Malcolm Kela Smith (EHP), and Fr. John Garia (Simbu).

Notable leaders who represent Open Electorates include Minister for Treasury and THE Party leader Don Polye (Kandep), Speaker of Parliament Samson Nape (Sinasina Yongamugi), former Deputy Prime Minister Sam Abal (Wabag) and United Resources Party leader and Minister for Petroleum and Energy William Duma (Mount Hagen), among others.

Are these prominenet Highlands leaders going to come back? Maybe, or maybe not?

For Peter O’Neill, it’s a safe bet that he will return. It’s been obvious since the decision by Parliament on August 2 to sideline Somare that the majority of Papua New Guineans prefer O’Neill to Somare as their PM. The majority of this popular support from the Highlands, is not only from the voters and people of Ialibu Pangia and Southern Highlands but throughout the whole Highlands region as well. The O’Neill Namah government has done much better in its short term in office than what many of its critics predicted from the beginning.

While the national and internationl focus in the last seven months has been on the constitutional leadership crisis, the people have accepted this fact and wlecomed the government’s people-focused inititives like free education, free medicare and the Sovereign Wealth Fund.

The government’s fight against corruption has also been commended, though a lot more still remains to be done. And the private sector, including the important petroleum and mining sectors are behind the O’Neill Namah government.

While the battle for the country’s top executive post over the last seven months has been disruptie for the nation, it has not adversely affected foreign investment and the economy.

As far as the people of Ialibu and Pangia and Southern Highlands are concerned, they will return Peter O’Neill as their MP and leader in a landslide victory. After all, he is the first Southern Highlander and second from the highlands region after Western Highlander Paias Wingto to become Prime Minsister.

Two of the most high-profile seats in the Highlands region are Western Highlands provincial and Mount Hagen Open seats. For the provincial seat, the three contestants who featured in the 2007 election and who are expected to fight it out again this time: Governor Tom Olga, former two-time Prime Minsister Paias Wingti (1985-1988; 1992-1994) and Deputy Governor, President of Hagen RLLG and Chairman of Wamp Nga Group pf Companies, Wai Rapa.

Mr. Wingti announced on Saturday Feb 25th that we will againt contest the provincial seat after losing to young student activist Tom Olga in 2007 and Mr. Rapa is yet to make his intentions known.

Mt. Hagen Open seat is considered to be “the millionaire’s seat” and is contested by candidates who have the money. While candidates for this important seat have yet to announce their intentions, incumbant Willaim Duma is confident that he will retrun to serve his thiurd term.

Whatever the outcome is for all Provincial and Open seats in the Highlands region, one thing is certain. It’s a crucil election where a lot of money, time and effort are going to be expended. But in the end, it’s the people themsleves who will decide who their leaders will be, including their Prime Minister. Let us hope and pray that the 2012 election will be a peaceful one.