The Pacific Islands Forum Election Observer Team to the 2017 Papua New Guinea Elections deployed from 19 June to 24 July, and observed pre-polling, polling, and counting. The Team observed pre-polling in the National Capital District; polling in Alotau, Jiwaka, Southern Highlands, Western Highlands, and East and West Sepik; and counting in Bougainville, East New Britain, National Capital District, and Central Province.
In the course of observing the election in the aforementioned provinces, the Forum Team acknowledges the enormous and at times difficult task of coordinating preparations by the Electoral Commission for the 2017 national elections, including the development of comprehensive plans and strategies for: the procurement and deployment of election materials and equipment; communications and awareness; and the recruitment and training of polling officials, including a workforce of more than twenty thousand temporary electoral workers.
The Team commends a growing culture amongst civil society, faith based organisations, university students and the public at large, of discussing governance and civic issues thereby contributing to increasing awareness and understanding of the democratic principles that underpin representative government.
We applaud the high level of interest by the general public to engage in, and understand the electoral process, evident by the large numbers of people who turned out to witness the different stages of the process, whether it was verifying ballot papers; polling or counting.
Despite the varied conduct of civic awareness programmes at the provinces and districts visited by the Team, it was clear that the enthusiasm of the general public to engage and be active participants in the exercise of their constitutional rights to vote was apparent.
Most of the polling teams we observed complied with legal procedures for the conduct of polls, and were professional and courteous. Forum Team members also observed diligent and active participation by scrutineers in the polling and counting processes, many of whom asked questions and sought clarification from officials on the conduct of polling and counting. Combining traditionally tribal and separate polling stations saw a pragmatic approach being applied by some Presiding Officers, in allowing identifiable voters to cast their ballots despite not being on the electoral roll. This ensured minimal tension and conflict; and satisfied the exercise of individuals’ right to vote.
The Forum Team observed that while the process of counting was not standardised across counting centres, it was typically carried out with diligence and efficiency. While some unnecessary delays were witnessed as a result of scrutineer interjections or the lack of payment of counting officials’ fees and allowances, it is clear that the most significant issues that have delayed counting – that have been the cause of real tension for intending candidates and their supporters – have their antecedence in perceived flaws in the polling process. Future reforms of the counting processes should bear this fact in mind.
Several significant challenges were noted, the most serious of which was the alarmingly large number of names missing from electoral rolls. These includes a candidate in one polling station, people who had lived in electorates their whole lives and had voted in previous elections, and people who claimed to have updated their voter details with provincial election offices and/or village and ward recorders. There were also many reports from other election observers of the same.
We acknowledge that the purpose of a national election is to provide a standardised process for eligible citizens to select local level representatives to national level leadership roles. An accurate list of eligible voters is therefore an imperative for any election. It is disappointing therefore that a large number of Papua New Guinea citizens were disenfranchised of their constitutional rights to vote, particularly considering the observed high levels of civic awareness and interest in participating in the election.
The absence of security personnel in some polling stations was noted as was the late deployment of security personnel in some remote locations – both situations reportedly due to the late disbursement of funds. There were also isolated incidences of discrepancies observed in procedures for polling, including assisted polling.
The Forum Team noted that the aforementioned challenges observed in the 2017 election have been raised by previous election observer groups, in 2007 and 2012, with commensurate recommendations to address the issues, particularly with regard the electoral roll. While there have been attempts to improve on aspects of the conduct of elections, the Forum Team is of the view that more concerted and timely effort needs to be made to learn from experiences and prepare for future elections. This includes timely support by the National Government to the Electoral Commission and relevant departments and agencies.