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An Electoral Miscarriage:

Limited Preferential Voting and Cultural
Interpretations in Papua New Guinea

By Linus S. Digim’Rina [1]
December, 2010

        For the first time in Papua New Guinea a new electoral process was trialed nationwide through its scheduled 2007 general elections. There had been prior widespread skepticism, however, over its ability to ensure fairness and success. The main areas of concern were at the implementation level starting with the Electoral Commission and all its technical support through to the susceptibilities of officers, candidates and voters alike largely stemming from their own biases and corrupt predilections.
         Despite all of the misgivings however, PNG went through a fairly smooth election event with relatively minimal technical setbacks, which perhaps only time will uncurl. While noting some of the author’s experience and observations as a first-time candidate in the national elections, this paper highlights some principal technical applications of the Limited Preferential Voting (LPV) that should require subsequent attention and improvement at policy level.
         This is a subjective discussion on the author’s experience as a candidate in the 2007 election in Papua New Guinea.


A Bird’s Eye View
My Own Little Story
Looking Across the Shoulders
Like a raindrop on a taro leaf: the inveterate approach
The Limited Preferential Voting Process
An Electoral Miscarriage
Too Many Candidates!
A Cultural Rationale
Conclusion: Leading the Leaders
References Used


        I wanted to serve my people with a more effective representation over their welfare. I intended to ultimately secure an educated voting population that relies on its conscience than the un-sustained material goods religiously handed out by candidates during elections. I wanted to thread the simple line of “When the food and money (i.e. materialistic handouts) run out, it is one’s own wit and agency that is relied upon.” After all this had been the story for the average Papua New Guinean across generations.

        I am nonetheless aware of the enormity of the task then faced by the former Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Bob Hawke, when in the late 1980s tried to advocate for a ‘Clever Australia’ at the policy and rhetoric level. Regardless of the level of success or failure however, this was and still is inspiring. I also wanted to tell the world of what happened, beginning with this one experience in the national elections. Hopefully, research institutions like universities could exploit existing avenues such as furloughs and sabbaticals for their staff to be actually involved in civic programs like general elections rather than having to resign from one’s job in order to attain well founded knowledge. There is indeed a need to document and learn by involvement from the trajectory of our own footprints throughout the history of social interaction and development.

        Ultimately, however, I wanted to show that the LPV process was not exploited to its full potential during the 2007 elections. And these shortfalls should be addressed at the policy level in order to improve the process, and at the same time ensure a just polling process.

A Bird’s Eye View

        Damon’s (2003) analysis of the U.S. elections, and those of others from Melanesia [2] along with various commentators such as media callers and contributors towards the 2007 PNG elections have highlighted the features and much of the flaws and shortfalls of the LPV electoral process. Much of these were leveled at the implementation of the electoral procedures, stemming all the way from the Electoral Office through to the provincial, constituency, district, and wards. Predominantly therefore, sustaining impartiality and ensuring full security towards the distribution of ballot boxes and papers, disseminating information, counting of ballot papers, were never totally free from bias and undue influence.

        For instance, it is almost ironical that Paias Wingti, the next best performer to the declared winner of the 2007 Western Highlands Provincial seat, Mr. Tom Olga, had to pursue his disappointment in the Court of Disputed Returns. After all Wingti’s previous election victories did not go down without allegations of voting process abuse and suspected undue manipulation. If Wingti’s current allegations bear any substance, Olga’s team may be squarely justified as it only dished back what the team members had learnt from the ‘master’ previously; Wingti was made to swallow his own medicine, so to speak.

        Tom Olga must have been a young voter during the heydays of Wingti who might have had a keen eye on the ‘master’s’ techniques. Elections in PNG have been on one hand, breeding grounds for ‘politics’, and ‘hunting grounds’ for social scientists, on the other!
         Established Melanesian principles of reciprocity loomed large as intervening factors for a candidate’s survival in PNG elections. From the attainment of bigmanship status through to the reinvention of tradition and customs, and/or adaptation of, altogether leave behind little breathing space for a fair electoral process. Elections for the average voter particularly for the person in between are in fact an opportune moment to gain cash and store goods (see for instance Dorney 2002, and Haley 2002). This is generally inevitable given the prevailing level of modern material poverty and negligence subjected to the remote and poor people out there, and over a protracted periods of time by the state. This includes the marginalized and unemployed in urban areas. [3] Election is a time to better one’s own poor economic standing even if it is only for a few weeks. It is neither the party policies nor, the national issues that matter (cf. Anere 2002: 87-88). Quite crudely, it is a time when the uncouth and the oblivious intensively ‘prostitute’ their own characters.
         Therefore, claims of success by the most victorious political party in the 2007 national elections were both hollow and a rhetorical farce. It is not the National Alliances party’s (NA) policies that got the candidate in rather the party candidates’ adequate endowment with ‘handout goods’, which ensured the party’s ultimate victory. ‘Shrewd distribution’ was not in fact a fund management requirement as most NA candidates were excessively and recklessly supported. To the average Kiriwina-Goodenough voter, NA party was a mere name attached to a Michael Somare, Prime Minister of PNG, and thus remains insignificant. His one-hour sojourn on the island of Kiriwina during the 2007 campaign period did little to impress the voters for such a well known name glued to an obviously weary face.
         The NA sponsored candidate for Kiriwina-Goodenough seat readily assumed the extravagant strategy with a modestly estimated spending of anything between a half and a million kina. [4] It was no surprise that the candidate had an unassailable lead with 3,973 votes after the count of the first preferences. This was further vindicated when the lead was surrendered at the last minute to the eventual winner who had surreptitiously garnered the secondary votes everywhere. The NA candidate’s, together with the sitting MP’s narrow-focused strategy in setting up lavish-feasting ‘support bases’ cost them the required secondary votes to come from elsewhere. The NA candidate would have won by a mile had the situation been that of the previous First Past the Post (FPP) method. [5] On the other hand, and regrettably, the 3,973 votes was way below the required 50%+1 absolute majority required for a victory considering the amount of wastage of funds and resources which might as well be used for better causes.
         Perhaps the most contemptuous aspect of PNG election process was to do with the unmediated and excessive influence on election rules and procedures by unscrupulous voters, candidates, and officials alike. Ketan noted the emerging threat on‘…hijacking of the electoral process…’
         The hijacking of polling officials and ballot boxes is a new and dangerous trend in PNG politics. A candidate’s aim here is to increase his share of the ballot papers through theft and fraud, whilst starving his rivals by hijacking ballot papers meant for their strongholds. If, however, some do slip through the net, then the next option would be to have them intercepted on their way back and have them destroyed (2002: 17).
         Compare Ketan’s observations with the reported marked ballot papers for the 2007 Madang regional seat allegedly recovered by losing candidates at the Madang town’s rubbish dump (EMTV 6 pm news, September 1st, 2007). The similarity of the scenario further vindicates Ketan’s prophetic remarks even if it was locally specific to the highlands region of PNG, and back in 2002.
         Examples are legion on vote buying and rigging before, during, and post-election events in PNG. Ad hoc establishments of communal boundaries, voter ‘support bases’, and candidates compelled to pay cash in order to release bygone communal mortuary interdictions (khatuvivisa [6] in Kiriwina), church contributions, [7] prayer rituals led by ostensibly impartial clergies, cash handouts, are characteristic of such tendencies.
         Irrespective of ’kastom’ and electoral rules, candidates appear desperately undeterred. … in a recent by-election in one of NCD’s electorate in which the LPV system was used, the winning candidate sponsored three other candidates so that they could get all the second votes from his voters. Voters were advised to scatter the third choice votes so that his opponents would not be in the race with him. This strategy was cemented with promises of cash handouts, contracts and so forth all sworn over the Bible (Kamasua 2006).
         The subsequent election of the Kiriwina Rural Local Level Government candidates was subjected to the same conditions and features of electioneering. For the first time however, a female Ms. Jennifer Rudd, was elected much to the envy of her many local male counterparts. [8] As a principal strategy of hers, she virtually feasted her way through every village with her trade store wealth spending as much as K100,000 perhaps. This was in addition to her generous assistance to locals in need of sea transportation between say the main town of Alotau and Kiriwina.
         Another emerging tendency, particularly with the candidates is to do with the deliberate and ruthless exploitation of the rural voters with limited knowledge on governance and modern niceties - the so-called cargo-cult mentality. Characteristically, and using rhetoric, candidates appeal with topical issues and wild unrealistic promises of ‘free education’, major highways, provision of ships and other gigantic infrastructure - that clearly cannot be achieved within the next five years. Again these are made with the intention of exploiting the rural people’s ignorance and prevailing poverty besetting their own local circumstances.
         The 2007 elections for the Kiriwina-Goodenough seat had at least a couple of candidates blatantly raising false hopes for the voters that once voted in, they would fight tooth and nail, and open up ducts towards millions of kina. And that the monies would be brought back to the people for their own unconditional ‘consumption’ and endless feasting!
         Candidates often failed to explain to voters that government funding is ever so limited, must be properly appropriated, and accounted for. Usually excitement overcomes any rationale thought thereby leaving behind little room for reason. Being so deeply enmeshed and consequently uncritical of the convoluted term ‘politics’, candidates were clearly behaving irresponsibly by deluding the voters.
         This leads me to the other curiously interesting and yet related observation on the final outcome of 2007 elections in the Milne Bay province. This is almost unique to Milne Bay as the phenomenon perpetually repeats itself. Of the five elected members, one was a naturalized citizen, three others were of mixed blood European and PNG, and one a mixed blood of Milne Bay and PNG highlands (but see Anere 2002). [9] From the outset, it would seem as if no full-blooded Milne Bay was fit enough to contest and/or there was a conspiracy to outsmart the autochthones. This is neither a slight nor, a prejudice against the eventual winners or all half/quarter-blooded Milne Bays. However, it is an observation that is worthy of notice.
         Milne Bay province has an unenviable history of voting in either naturalized citizens or, half/quarter-blooded Milne Bays to run its political affairs. Naturalized citizens and half-blooded Milne Bays have been generally and economically better positioned candidates compared to the average full-blooded Milne Bay. Naturalized citizens have been of late, super businessmen in the province. The previous Governor and a few others more were such, and so as the present one. [10]
         The other half-blooded Milne Bay members of parliament have been all business people except for the Kiriwina-Goodenough member elect. He was a former branch manager of Air Niugini, even then there was speculation during the elections that he was part of a covertly-engineered network of individuals with a zealous eye on marine business interests in the province. Two naturalized citizens have been alleged to be engineers of such a scheme. Three other locals, and two of whom, are close blood relatives of the winning candidate, were said to be scheming to get into the Local Level Government council elections in order to further consolidate this business network.
         The point is naturalized citizens and half-blooded Milne Bay candidates are usually better placed to facilitate ‘handouts’ in order to win votes from the poverty-stricken local Milne Bays (see Anere’s Tables 6.4 & 6.5, 2002: 91). Taking nothing away from the piecemeal generosity these individuals provide to the locals however, the ‘handout’ mentality prevails come election time. Many of such well to do candidates perpetuate these electioneering tendencies including urban-based, albeit full-blooded Milne Bays that had business interests and excessive party endowment.
         In a keynote address delivered to the people of Milne Bay at the inaugural Milne Bay Provincial Open Day hosted by the Milne Bay Students Union at the University of Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby, I stated the following:
                 We either match the challenge and drive our people to intellectual poverty

                  and persistent economic dependence or, change it by devising creative

                  awareness campaigns among our people for a more conscientious choice

                  of leadership. For that reason alone, I welcome the challenge of [from] the

                   naturalized citizens so that we can play it smarter and promote the intelligence

                   of our own people from erosion through cargo-cult strategies.

                   (digim’Rina, September 25, 2007: 6)

         When asked, while visiting relatives overseas, as to how he manages to win back his seat in Milne Bay, a naturalized citizen and former Member of Parliament was arrogantly haughty:

                   Just give them [voters] a stick of tobacco, and a t-shirt, and that’s it.

                   (Dr. G. Tokhabilula, personal communication, Alotau, May 2007).

         Regardless of the angle of perspective, ‘handout’ mentality continues to influence, arrest, and play havoc on the political, economic and intellectual freedom of Milne Bay voters, rural and urban alike. After all, poverty in Milne Bay is not about daily going without food rather, being intellectually deprived of having to consciously choose one’s own path for a desired destiny. A real decent choice is lacking for the average Milne Bay. This is a result of a century of political stagnancy, economic displacement by alien crooks, and cultural illusion (digim’Rina op.cit.: 4).
         These are some of the instances noted from Milne Bay that lend support to the general observation of electioneering trend in PNG elections - all for the wrong reasons. Irresponsible candidates, whose conscience is most likely distorted partially by a sudden flush of cash access or, growing inability to provide sound direction and vision amidst misguided cultural influences and/or both together, on one hand, and the voters inability to see and grow beyond their own poor cultural conditions, on the other. Both have in a combined manner provided a ‘weak’ element in ensuring a fair electoral process. This was the major problem with the electoral processes. Far too many weak and irresponsible candidates backed by unscrupulous influential local voters. Colloquially, prostitution of voters, candidates, kastom, and church protocols become inevitable. My personal observation is that the process is sound enough, but as I will show below it still requires some vital changes toward improvement.

My Own Little Story

         My approach to this study had been, by and large, ethnographic. I went in as a participant-observer, that is an agent with a subjective approach, albeit with a backdrop of a keen observer. In my letter of resignation to the Registrar of the University of Papua New Guinea I clarified my intention to resign.
                 …I take this technical resignation as a phase within a whole process of

                  my professional career wherein I wish to enter into politics both as an

                  ‘agent-citizen’, and also a professional researcher of social issues and

                   processes. Meaning, I make the undertaking as a subjective participant

                   while remaining an objective observer – perhaps however never attaining

                    the ideal ‘participant-observer’ status, a’la Malinowski. It is from such a

                    perspective that I embark on this phase of this [sic] vocational project

                    (digim’Rina, resignation letter Sept 2006 – emphasis added).

         I had given some thought on the objectives I would like to achieve during this rare and yet opportune time as a candidate in the national elections. While it remains academically contentious, I took it as an intellectual challenge as well as an adventure in order to broaden my horizons.
         In mid 2004 I decided to contest in the 2007 elections. The decision was quietly made known to my village people and especially the area comprising some ten villages in the Luba district of Kiriwina. The years that followed on till the end of 2006 went with little formality except to confirm rumors of my intention to contest for those that cared to ask.
         In late September 2006, I submitted my letter of resignation to my employer and convened my first election-related meeting with urban-based relatives on November 1st, 2007. The meeting was received with mixed feelings, as among the attendees were ‘brothers’ of a rival candidate who in fact is a brother-in-law of mine.
         Meantime, at least three of the candidates had already commenced their campaigns manifested in sponsored inter-village football competitions involving usually a cluster of some ten villages. Rumors spread like wild fire as the popularity of candidates fluctuate subject to a myriad of social and spatial factors. My own involvement of the BBC to shoot a staged feature film of the famed Trobriand cricket in June 2006, was rashly interpreted by some rival candidates as a Machiavellian campaign attempt. Indeed some ten participating villages were paid at least K1000 each, over and above spinoffs. Admittedly, I practically could not exploit the situation for my own personal gain as I was such a busy member of the production team. Some ungrateful villagers and a few urban Trobriand Islanders however failed to understand that I was a contracted consultant. And that was even after I explained to the villagers that this was barter opportunity and not the usual ‘handout’ cash bundles dished out to them by Members of Parliament and/or intending candidates. Some were even more concerned with the tough line I towed that they had to sweat it out for the cash. I even made their Chiefs, Elders, Leaders, and Councilors sign off consent of participation documents including receipts of payments made. This was not easy given that I was already known to be an intending candidate.
         Handouts through cash and kind from intending candidates had already begun to move through kinship, church and established socio-political networks. Scheming middlemen voters opportunistically and on regular basis travelled between rural and urban areas themselves acting ostensibly as spokespersons for their respective village voters. The intention was to woo favors from the unsuspecting intending candidates who were mostly urban based. Quite plainly however, majority of these smooth talking middlemen were seasoned conmen.
         I then flew to Kimbe, West New Britain with my two-year-old son and spent a couple of weeks with my niece and her family soliciting funding support for my election venture. I successfully secured a commitment of up to K10,000 from Motu Kauyola family. The cost of this leg of the journey was shared between the Kauyola family and I. A total amount of K7150 was eventually disbursed to me by the Kauyola family for my campaign expenses.
         In the first week of January 2007, and together with the Kauyola family, I organized the only fundraising event for my candidature at the UPNG Drill Hall and raised K5000 after spending about half of the above amount. This comprised of sales of assorted food items and beverages including alcohol. The attendance was not as good as was initially anticipated, however. The Kauyola family sent me two more tranches of funds thereafter. A foreign colleague of mine sent over K1000, part of which was to cover my campaign expenses.
         Between November 2006 and April 2007, I spent all my time in Port Moresby not been able to make a single travel to the constituency. There was much ambivalence among my potential voters of whether I was serious in contesting at all. As early as late 2005 I signed an expression of interest to be endorsed by Pangu Party as a candidate through an agent from its Alotau party branch. From September 2006 to March 2007, I continued to negotiate and work my way toward becoming a serious Kiriwina-Goodenough candidate for Pangu Party. A reliable official of the party was my contact that continued to cajole my interest.
         In January 2007, an agent from the New Generation Party sought for my endorsement by the party at my home in Port Moresby. I respectfully declined the request on ethical grounds as the party had by then engaged a controversial citizen as one of its key party players in the election.
         On March 2, 2007 a couple of colleagues asked me to join the Peoples Progress Party (PPP) at my home. Convinced that this was a more promising proposition, as I also trusted Sir Julius Chan’s astute leadership and work ethics, I wrote a formal letter of application for endorsement the very next day, and was subsequently enlisted as a potential candidate. I immediately conveyed the decision to my Pangu contacts, albeit electronically.
         Courting with PPP became more serious and assuring in the coming weeks. This was even after the party Secretary informed me that the party’s branch at Alotau had decided to endorse a local candidate based on Goodenough Island, and I was to be a procandidate. While I humbly accepted the decision given my late cooption into the party however, I became a bit anxious. In retrospect however, the PPP party branch at Alotau made a good decision as their choice did way better than I, and came third when the winner of the seat was declared.
         By the end of April I was worried that party funding was not forthcoming as we were all impressed earlier by the party officials and officers. After the issue of writs on May 4th, I decided to do away with party affiliation and go the mile alone hence nominated as an Independent candidate on May 7th. The decision was made after I had called the party Secretary in Port Moresby and advised him so.
         I had planned earlier that my campaign would target locally-specific issues of health, education and poverty. My numerous trips to the island of Kiriwina, and personal knowledge of Goodenough informed me that these were the most pressing issues. The rest were merely manifestations of the three above. And that I should prioritize my focus upon few major local projects along the above lines: human resources (health and education into the future), so as to arrest the prevailing problem of poverty by raising living standards in the long run. Mobilizing and using strengths within was the overarching goal.
         I would need a DVD equipment, a multi-media projector to show selected ethnographic documentaries, in order to graphically bring the points across. The film/media-starved rural population will certainly find it amusing, attractive, and educational. Educational was my objective, however. The above tools were to be powered by a portable generator. This plus a nine-footer fiberglass dinghy equipped with a 40 horsepower outboard motor had been purchased by my brother and was already back in the village. The dinghy was to cover the transportation requirements to the outliers and Goodenough. I also purchased a loud hailer, which became a very vital tool during my campaign. Essentially, it proved to be handy by quickly gathering the people together from nearby gardens, for example, and also made my speeches audibly clear. With these and some K10,000 spending money for food and election-related contingencies should see me through the month-long campaign period. [11] This was my simple plot given my personal knowledge of the culture.
         By the hour however, I was still unable to purchase the multi-media equipments and had only K7,000 on hand to cover my election campaign. I was anxious, and was indeed broke by the second week of my campaign. I could only afford travel from Port Moresby via Alotau for the nomination, two, 44 gallon drums of fuel for the dinghy, another for kerosene, and transportation to Kiriwina with my two very close assistants from Port Moresby. I nonetheless proceeded to conduct my campaign on foot and by dinghy to the outliers except for the Goodenough Island. From then on I grabbed and exploited the opportunity, including the misfortune with inadequate cash, as a challenge. My courage to do so raised eyebrows no doubt, and also got some suspicious voters disgustingly suggesting that I was palpably stingy and therefore not ’crazy-enough’ to contest. Both accusations, as I was aware, were indeed contra to some of the key criterion to Melanesian principles of ’bigmanship’, however.
         Ultimately, I allowed three communal/voter-address gatherings at my home village of Okheboma however with varied attendances and contexts. The first was an introduction to my campaign trail, which comprised of a slaughtered pig, some K200 worth of rice, tea and sugar, and yams and betel nut bunches sponsored by relatives and close supporters alike. The second was an address specifically made to the male youth on the eve of polling at Okheboma. Under my instruction, they were to observe and police the polling rules while ensuring that supporters and scrutineers of the other candidates, within and without, do likewise. The cost of the gathering comprised of a K100 worth of rice, tea and sugar. The third, was a final gathering with faithful voters to express my gratitude and provide some analytical insights into the electorate’s 2007 election event. The cost comprised of three slaughtered pigs variously provided by relatives, yams, and K300 worth of rice, sugar and tea.
         Additional to the above were my free gifts of apportioned kerosene supply to those that felt free to come forward and ask of it. Okheboma and a few of Okupukopu villagers were the main beneficiaries. The only 200-litre kerosene drum for this purpose was used up within a week. At least one-fifth of the kerosene was used for my evening presentations that we carried in portable plastic containers throughout the island.
         Villagers would offer their coleman lamps while we provided the kerosene. I also generously gave away limited litres of my zoom fuel for the outboard motor to genuine individuals that sought for assistance. This aside, the rest of my campaign trail rested on my character, friendship, and kinship relations. I did not set up ‘voter support base’ at my home village and villages within the vicinity. Undoubtedly, this allowed rival candidates to move in with ease, and gnawed at the potential solidarity of my ‘village base’ with the apparent lure of cash, cheap goods, and lies perpetrated by unproductive cohorts of theirs.
         On the other hand, faithful subscribers to ‘short-lived local politics’ will continue to view my effort as being politically naïve, and gullible thus, approaching incredulous levels of political miscalculation. Such hearkened views of ‘politics’ will never realize a major positive reform to the socio-economic conditions of the Kiriwina people. Time shall tell. I was indeed better equipped with a personal knowledge of the culture, records of previous elections, documentation of activities from previous research projects including archaeology, archival search, ethnography, local history of Kiriwina and Goodenough, environment, and political elections, too.
         I had also vitally equipped myself with the latest demographic and voting population statistics that improved my ability to address the local issues in the parlance of the voters. I could speak the kind of language that is familiar with the voters having on hand a sound knowledge of fundamental local nuances, politics, and island history. My previous community engagements of the people with the outside world through television documentaries particularly with ZDF of German television (1995), UNESCO tree replanting project (1999-), the BBC (2006), and a University teacher served me well in been adequately known by the people.
          My own generosity also included the unprecedented efforts of my brother Rodney and I in distributing 1kg rice freely to households and individuals during the drought crisis ten years ago (1997-1998). This gesture was rivaled only by the then MP, Mr. William Ebenosi, who went out of his way to facilitate the budgeted government relief supply. This nonetheless served the MP well. However, all of these count to nothing on the eve of voting as if voters conveniently forget genuine efforts for instantaneous ‘vote-buying’ efforts. I had no regrets and had publicly assured the voters so in various formal addresses.

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