Some 10,000 members of the security forces were mobilized to ensure the security of the ballot on this Pacific island marked for a long time by corruption and homicides linked to the elections.
“We want transparency, we want accountability and above all we want a safe, fair and secure voting period,” Prime Minister James Marape said after casting his ballot on the first day of voting.
And Australia, a former colonial power in the independent country for nearly fifty years, sent more than 130 soldiers with air assets to participate in this operation to secure this long electoral process with multiple challenges.
During the election campaign in this country of nine million inhabitants, Prime Minister James Marape called for people to be “free to vote in safety”.
But electoral rivalries can quickly turn into bloodbaths, especially in remote and mountainous regions. The Australian National University has listed more than 200 election-related deaths in the last ballot in 2017 and large-scale “serious irregularities”.
According to Papua police, fifteen such deaths have been recorded so far this year.
A candidate in the mountainous province of Enga has been charged in the shooting death of a supporter of a political opponent on June 26, police told local media.
Mr. Marape acknowledged in his final campaign message the persistence of “latent corruption in all strata of the public service” and the lack of development despite the island’s great natural wealth.
“I recognize that there are still many things to do for our country,” said the Prime Minister and leader of the Pangu party.
He faces a strong adversary in the person of his predecessor Peter O’Neill, who resigned three years ago under pressure because of endemic corruption and popular accusations that he had failed to bring the people spin-offs from lucrative mineral resources.
“There are worrying signs around our nation that the election was very poorly prepared and interference appears to be widespread,” he said.
“I hope the good officers of our security forces at all levels can ensure that we have free, fair and safe elections.”
Mr O’Neill, of the National People’s Congress Party and which was in power from 2011 to 2019, has pledged to attract private investment and revive the industrial exploitation of the country’s resources.
Papua New Guinea is full of gas, oil, gold and copper reserves and also has forestry and agricultural production.
– Results in August –
The vote itself can last up to eighteen days and the result should not be clearly defined before August.
Analysts expect the new leader to cobble together a coalition government in a 118-seat parliament, none of which has been held by a woman since 2017.
This year, there are 142 women among the approximately 3,500 candidates.
“Elections are always messy and chaotic. They can get very violent,” noted Jessica Collins, a Pacific expert at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.
Analysts also note that voters, in a country of many ethnicities speaking more than 800 dialects, are less interested in national issues than in the material benefits that candidates can reap for their local communities.
To further complicate the process, voter rolls are not updated, according to Australian National University Pacific expert Henry Ivarature. “Therefore, the very integrity of this election is already in question.”
The government that will emerge from this election will also have to face significant challenges.
Nearly 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line, according to the World Bank’s 2020 report.
And the country only experienced a “weak recovery” in 2021 after being devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Asian Development Bank estimated. Only 3% of the inhabitants have a complete vaccination schedule.
Mr Marape, who has vowed to make Papua the “richest black Christian country”, told voters his government had begun to return their nation’s wealth to the people.