Papua New Guineans go to the polls Saturday in elections seen as a watershed moment for the struggling Pacific nation mired in political crisis as it sits on the brink of a monumental resources boom.
Criticized by Australian diplomats in leaked cables as a “totally dysfunctional blob” ahead of the last polls in 2007, PNG’s governance ahead of the 2012 vote is even more chaotic with two men claiming to be prime minister.
The nation’s first leader Sir Michael Somare has been locked in a power struggle with his one-time cabinet member turned rival, Peter O’Neill, since a Supreme Court ruling last year found O’Neill’s rise illegal.
The political impasse saw the nation at one point have two prime ministers, two governors-general and two police chiefs before O’Neill asserted his still-disputed authority on the floor of parliament.
Overshadowing all this is the development of the country’s gas and minerals, including what is considered the largest deal for the impoverished nation — ExxonMobil’s $15 billion Liquified Natural Gas project.
“There are various things going on, but to be quite frank deep down, it’s probably the PNG LNG thing that has been driving that power struggle,” former Somare minister Dame Carol Kidu said.
“People want to be in power in 2014 when the funds from the LNG project start to flow.”
Despite 10 years of unbroken economic growth, averaging above 4.0 percent, PNG’s nearly seven million people remain largely mired in poverty, with health and education services going backwards, HIV/AIDS endemic and crime rising.
“The economic wealth of PNG is not flowing down as it should to the broader population,” said Annmaree O’Keefe from independent thinktank the Lowy Institute’s Melanesian program.
Analysts say these rising frustrations could fuel violence during the polls.
Melbourne University researcher Scott Flower said there were already signs the elections could be more deadly than the 2002 polls in which 30 people died and tens of thousands of ballots were stolen in armed raids.
“In the last three weeks of campaigning there have been 19 election-related deaths,” he said, adding that all involved firearms.
He said PNG villagers, who receive little from the political system, see elections when they came around every five years as simply a “time of food” — a reference to the cash, pigs and other items candidates provide to win votes.
With police diverted to work in areas with resources projects, authorities could struggle to maintain security for the polls which take place over two weeks due to logistics and security concerns, Flower said.
And with some 3,345 candidates vying for 109 parliamentary seats, the competition was “more intense than ever.”
Some are hoping for generational change, with O’Neill, at 47, seen as the youthful alternative to 76-year-old Somare, who has dominated PNG politics for more than 40 years and is known as the “Grand Chief”.
It was Somare’s serious illness in 2011, which saw him spend months in Singapore and his family announcing his resignation from politics, that paved the way for O’Neill to become prime minister.
Given the nature of PNG politics, it is unlikely that any one party will secure a majority and the prime minister will ultimately lead a coalition strung together by furious horsetrading after the vote.
“It could be [former prime minister] Paias Wingti, it could be O’Neill, Somare is running again, it’s impossible to tell you at this stage who will be the next prime minister because… it’s almost a chaotic system,” said O’Keefe.
Kidu said it was possible Somare and O’Neill could end up colleagues in the next government.
But she hopes that the “awful mess” that is PNG politics can be cleared up.
“At least someone will be able to say, ‘Well, I am the new prime minister with a mandate from the election,’” she said.