Political Background of PNG National Election

Early and Colonial History

Archaeological evidence of humans on the island of New Guinea has been dated to approximately 50,000 years ago. Spanish and Portuguese sailors sighted the land in the early 16th century. The Dutch claimed the western half of the island in 1828 as part of the Dutch East Indies. There was some limited foreign exploration of the eastern half of the island in the 19th century, and a few settlements made. In 1884, Germany annexed the northern parts and Britain proclaimed a protectorate over the southern parts, which were formally annexed by Britain in 1888 and became British New Guinea.

In 1906, Australia took over British New Guinea, renamed a year earlier as the Territory of Papua. The Australian army occupied German New Guinea during the First World War and in 1920 Australia received from the League of Nations a mandate for the government of New Guinea, as it was then called.

In 1942 the Japanese army occupied parts of New Guinea and Papua; the Australian military administered the rest. Papua New Guinea played a significant role in World War II history, as a frontline of allied defence against Japan’s push southward. Following the war, under the Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949, the two parts were united for administration as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and put under United Nations International Trusteeship. The Act set up a legislative council, under an (Australian) Administrator, with a mix of elected and appointed members. Under the Papua and New Guinea Act of 1963, the council became a House of Assembly, with 64 members, ten of them nominated official members and 54 elected from throughout the Territory in 1964.

The House of Assembly established a Select Committee on Constitutional Development, and its recommendations were adopted in 1967. This resulted in the number of elected seats in the House being increased to 84 in elections in 1968. A new ministerial system was adopted and an Executive Council established. In 1971 a new Select Committee recommended that the Territory prepare for self-government. Elections were held in April 1972. The House then had 100 elected members, with an additional three appointed and four official members. Sir Michael Somare became Chief Minister of a coalition government. Self-government was granted at the end of 1973.


Papua New Guinea achieved independence on 16 September 1975, becoming a sovereign constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, represented by a Papua New Guinean Governor-General, Sir John Guise. PNG adopted a five-year parliamentary term and Sir Michael Somare, the Prime Minister at independence and leader of the Papua New Guinea United Party (PANGU Pati), was returned to power at the 1977 election. A parliamentary defeat in 1980 led to his replacement as Prime Minister by Sir Julius Chan, leader of the People’s Progress Party (PPP). Chan served as Prime Minister until 1982 when, following a national election, the Parliament re-elected Somare (PANGU). In 1985, the Parliament again passed a vote of no confidence in Somare, and Paias Wingti, leader of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) was elected Prime Minister. Wingti (PDM) was re-elected Prime Minister following the 1987 national election, but was removed following a vote of no confidence in 1988. Sir Rabbie Namaliu, who had successfully challenged Somare for the leadership of PANGU, became Prime Minister. After the 1992 election, Wingti (PDM) won back the Prime Ministership.

At independence, PNG’s Constitution incorporated a six-month grace period after elections during which no-confidence motions were banned (s. 145(4)). The aim of the grace period was to allow government sufficient time to settle into office, develop and implement policies. Parliament amended this law in 1991 to extend the mandatory period between no-confidence motions to 18 months to increase political stability. In an attempt to extend his grace period by a second 18 months Wingti resigned in 1994 without notice and was almost immediately re-elected. PNG’s Supreme Court ruled the manoeuvre unconstitutional and Sir Julius Chan (PPP) successfully challenged Wingti for the Prime Ministership. Chan was forced to resign in March 1997 as a result of a political and military crisis arising from the Bougainville conflict. Cabinet appointed a caretaker government headed by the Minister for Mining and Petroleum, John Giheno (PPP).

At the election held in 1997, 16 ministers (including Chan) lost their seats and Sir William (Bill) Skate, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), was elected Prime Minister by Parliament after a month of negotiations as the head of a four-party coalition. Beset by corruption scandals and an acute financial crisis, by mid-1999 Skate lost the support of the majority in Parliament. He resigned as Prime Minister in July, shortly before Parliament started its new session, and Sir Mekere Morauta, then leader of PDM, was elected Prime Minister.

Under Sir Mekere Morauta’s leadership, Parliament passed the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC) in 2001 (amended in 2003), introducing legislative measures designed to address political instability. OLIPPAC instituted stringent party membership rules designed to make political parties stronger and governments more stable. Under OLIPPAC, members of Parliament (MP) were to be penalised if they switched parties, and had to vote in accordance with their party on matters relating to constitutional amendments, budget appropriations and motions of no confidence.

2002 National Election

The national election that took place in 2002 was chaotic and violent, and marked by widespread voting irregularities, inaccurate electoral rolls, voter manipulation and intimidation (including at times by electoral officials) hijacking of ballot boxes, and outbreaks of violence among rival candidates, their supporters and, in some instances, against polling officials, resulting in dozens of deaths. The Electoral Commissioner declared elections in six of the nine electorates in the Southern Highlands Province to have failed when officials were unable to retain control over the process. In Enga Province, ballot boxes held in a metal container outside a police station for safekeeping were bombed with drums of aviation fuel.

Following the election, Somare’s National Alliance Party (NA) won 19 of the declared seats. Somare once again became Prime Minister, heading a multiparty coalition. With the OLIPPAC in place, the 2002 Somare government became the first since independence to serve a full five-year term in office.

2007 National Election

The 2007 national election was the first held following the enactment of a series of electoral reforms, some of which had commenced under the Morauta Government in 2001 . Notably, these reforms included the replacement of the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system with limited preferential voting (LPV). The decision to move to the LPV system was in response to calls for MPs to be elected with larger percentage of the vote and, in part, to reduce tensions associated with candidate movements during the campaign period.

Somare’s NA won 27 seats at the 2007 elections, and secured the agreement of a further 59 MPs to join his coalition. Somare was therefore duly re-elected as Prime Minister by Parliament.

In July 2010, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled that key elements of OLIPPAC were unconstitutional, including provisions that restricted MPs on votes relating to the election of (and vote of no confidence in) the Prime Minister, the budget, constitutional laws, and whether they wanted to remain within a political party or change allegiance.

2011-12 ‘Political Crisis’

In March 2011, Somare departed to Singapore for medical treatment, for what subsequently emerged as a serious health condition. His absence extended for several months. On 2 August 2011, amid increasing concerns that Somare would never be able to resume office, a parliamentary vote declared the office of prime minister to be vacant. Peter O’Neill, PNC party leader, was then elected Prime Minister.

Parliament’s actions were immediately challenged in the Supreme Court, spearheaded by the Somare-led NA. Upon his return from Singapore in September 2011, Somare joined this action. On 12 December 2011 the court ruled that the declared vacancy was unconstitutional, and therefore the subsequent election of Peter O’Neill as Prime Minister was invalid.

Parliament passed a law in response to the ruling to prevent a return by Somare as Prime Minister (notably by placing an age-limit on the eligibility requirements for the post). O’Neill remained in the position of Prime Minister, confirmed by a parliamentary vote, and continued to enjoy the support of the public service, police and other key agencies, although Somare attempted to appoint his own defence and police commanders.

On 26 January 2012, a small group of military officers briefly took up arms against O’Neill’s appointed Commander of the PNG Defence Force, claiming the authority of Somare as the lawful Prime Minister. The attempted mutiny was quickly and peacefully defused by police and military loyal to O’Neill.

Despite a period of political tumult, marked by proposed delays to the election and attempts to restrict the authority of the court, elections proceeded in accordance with PNG ‘s Constitution during June-July 2012.

2012 National Election

PNG’s 2012 national election took place between 23 June and 13 July 2012. Polling was marked with widespread delays, ranging from hours to several days in some locations, and the official date for polling to conclude, originally scheduled for 6 July, was extended by one week to enable teams to conclude polling. The writs, originally scheduled to be returned on 27 July, were returned on 2 August 2012.

In coastal areas, polling was peaceful and correct voting procedures were broadly followed, albeit with some variances. Polling was also largely peaceful in the Highlands, although there were some isolated instances of violence and security forces were deployed in large numbers, and serious irregularities were observed in the voting procedures. The accuracy of the electoral roll was a cause of concern to many voters, with reports that numerous voters were turned away in coastal and islands provinces. Voting proceeded in the Highlands, despite the abandonment of the electoral roll altogether in most parts.

O’Neill’s PNC party won 27 seats at the 2012 national election, and secured support from additional parties, including Somare’s NA, which had won 7 seats and independent MPs to form government. On 3 August 2012, Parliament elected O’Neill Prime Minister.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *