Why has a coherent party system failed to develop in PNG?

The question, why have parties not developed, implicitly assumes that political parties are an inherent part of a parliamentary system. Certainly, the process of majority decision-making encourages groups of like-minded members to come together to ensure the numbers necessary to push legislative agendas, and when there are significant lines of social cleavage — class, ideology, ethnicity, religion, region — and corresponding clearly differentiated collective group interests, these might form a natural basis for party organisation. This has been the history of political party development in most developed nations. But it does not describe politics in PNG.

First, as Hegarty has argued, PNG lacked the galvanising influence on politics of an independence struggle, through which parties have often been defined elsewhere, and, after the early differences between Pangu-NP and UP over the speed of transition to independence became irrelevant in 1975, party platforms, as we have seen, tended to converge. Class has not emerged as a major social cleavage in a country where about 85 per cent of the population is at least partly involved in subsistence agriculture and even the urban elite tend to retain their links with the village. Undoubtedly, there is a growing gap between rich and poor, but Western class models are largely irrelevant in explaining the dynamics of economic inequalities in PNG. Regionalism has had more impact on PNG politics, especially in relation to a continuing Papuan identity, but it has not provided a systematic basis for party organization. Indeed, to achieve office, all coalitions need to put together a group representative of all four regions, and this to some extent cuts across regionalism as a base for party organisation. In the absence of such social or geographic cleavages, collectivities have developed primarily from personal networks. Since politicians also compete for office, these personal networks are typically fragile, especially among aspiring leaders.

Secondly, and not unrelated, politics in PNG remain essentially parochial. While I have argued elsewhere that the view of electoral outcomes in PNG being determined by clan or ‘tribal’ loyalties is an oversimplification, electoral success nevertheless seems to be determined primarily by local factors: local reputation, local perceptions of a candidate’s ability to deliver goods and services to his or her electorate and the effectiveness of electoral campaigning. Successive studies of PNG national elections have provided little evidence of a party vote – even of a strong Pangu vote in Pangu’s stronghold of East Sepik — and only occasionally (as perhaps in the case of Sir Michael Somare, the country’s first Prime Minister) has a national reputation translated into local votes. Added to this, a high turnover of parliamentary members means that most MPs seek a quick return from their period in office, and this places a premium on being in government, preferably with a Cabinet portfolio. Indeed, MPs’ constituents generally expect their member to be in government, regardless of party attachment. After several Opposition MPs defected to governing coalition parties in 1990, they explained: ‘We are elected to Parliament to be in government.’

As a result, MPs are driven less by the desire to implement a particular policy agenda than by the desire to maximise the returns, for themselves and their constituents, from being in office. And as every government since 1972 has been a coalition and, until 2002, no government has survived a full parliamentary term, with MPs hopping from one party to another and parties shifting allegiance from one coalition to another, the potential for individual interest outweighing party loyalty is substantial. This has been reflected in the frequency of votes of no confidence. In such a volatile atmosphere, party loyalties are difficult to sustain. OLIPPC sought to address this problem by strengthening parties, but developments since December 2003 have so far suggested that MPs are not willing to accept the constraints of the OLIPPC and that the State is either incapable of enforcing the provisions of the organic law or unwilling to pursue them.

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