Political Parties in Papua New Guinea

In the lead-up to PNG’s independence, the Australian Administration progressively, if perhaps somewhat belatedly, established the institutions of an essentially Westminster parliamentary democracy. A part-elected, part-appointed House of Assembly was created in 1964, replacing an appointed Legislative Council, and further elections were held in 1968 and 1972, the latter producing the country’s first wholly elected Parliament.

Initially, there was little enthusiasm for political parties. As late as 1967, Australia’s External Affairs Minister, Charles Barnes, suggested that ‘the Territory would be better off without [political] parties’, and this view was shared by many field officers of the Australian Administration, who tended to be wary of any indigenous political organisation and disparaging of attempts to establish political parties. Recalling his unsuccessful electoral campaign in 1967, Albert Maori Kiki said:

Many people had told me that it was unwise to campaign on the Pangu platform, that the administration had tried to discredit us and that it could be used against me. In fact most of the Pangu candidates, even the ones from the inner circle, campaigned as individuals in order not to expose themselves to this kind of attack.

Even as the 1972 elections approached, some officials of the Australian Administration ‘foster[ed] the attitude that parties were detrimental to the country’.

Despite this, political education material prepared by the Administration before the elections of 1968 and 1972 commended political parties, specifically supporting the idea of two or three parties over one or many, and, after a visiting UN mission in 1971 had recommended that parties be promoted on a nationwide basis, the Administration distributed a booklet on parties that contained the platforms of the three major parties at that time. Indeed, by the early 1970s, it might be said that the Administration was propagandising for the institution of political parties as some well-informed Papua New Guineans were arguing against parties as being potentially disruptive.

Inhibiting factors aside, mass-based political movements did emerge in the pre-independence period. Among the various political organisations to appear on the scene before the elections for the second House of Assembly in 1968, two — the United Christian Democratic Party (later United Democratic PartyUDP) and the Papua New Guinea National Union (Pangu Pati) — might be described as the first indigenous, mass-based parties. The UDP, an ideologically conservative party identified with the Catholic mission, was established in the East Sepik Province in 1966, but proved to be short-lived, fading away after a disappointing showing in the 1968 election. Pangu was more successful: when the second House of Assembly sat in 1968, 10 of the 84 members were Pangu members, and the party declared itself to be the ‘loyal opposition’ to the Administration-dominated ‘government’. Nevertheless, a study of the 1968 election, echoing Kiki’s comments, minimised the influence of parties in the election:

Outside a handful of towns, there was little sign of the ‘political parties’ so hastily inaugurated during 1967 … At worst … it was an electoral liability for a candidate to be publicly associated with them, and candidates … avoided or even denied such association.

And Ted Wolfers observed:

Parties probably had a real impact at the popular level only in the East Sepik, Bougainville and Morobe districts.

Between 1968 and 1972, two other mass-based movements emerged, which were described at the time as political parties. These were the Mataungan Association of East New Britain and Napidakoe Navitu of the North Solomons. But though both movements fielded candidates in the election of 1972 (and the Mataungans again in 1977), they were not formed as political parties to contest elections. Before the end of the 1968–72 House of Assembly, three more political parties had emerged. The first of these, the United Party, had its origins in an Independent Members’ Group (IMG) established in the House in 1968 among a group of members brought together essentially by their opposition to Pangu’s demand for early independence. The group consisted largely of Highlands members together with some of the more conservative expatriate members. In 1968–69, attempts were made by members of the IMG to create local groups to support a political party centred on the IMG and, in early 1970, the formation of a coordinating body, Combined Political Associations (Compass), was announced. Its chairman and secretary were both Highlanders. The next year, Compass changed its name to United Party (UP). By mid 1971, UP claimed the backing of 45 parliamentary members. A second party also emerged from within the IMG in 1970: the Business Services Group, under the leadership of Julius Chan, comprised 10 members, mostly from the New Guinea Islands, who, it was suggested ‘seemed to represent a regional distrust of the highlands leadership implicit in Compass’. The Business Services Group subsequently founded the People’s Progress Party (PPP). The association of Highlanders with a ‘go-slow’ attitude to independence, which Compass represented, also prompted the formation among a group of generally younger and more progressive Highlanders of the New Guinea National Party (NP), which was generally regarded as ‘the highlands equivalent of Pangu.’

The 1972 election was thus, for the first time, contested by parties. About 150 of the 611 candidates who nominated were endorsed or selected and helped by parties, and in his overview of the election David Stone concluded that ‘Undoubtedly … what marked the 1972 general election from its predecessors was the prominent and active participation by political parties and associations’. Nevertheless, some candidates were still hesitant about publicly admitting party membership, and party organisation was still weak: as in 1968, a number of electorates fielded more than one candidate from the same party, and no party had a nationwide organisation. In the event, no party emerged from the 1972 elections with a clear majority and, notwithstanding the expectations of the UP (which had anticipated up to 60 seats and in fact won about 37), after some intense lobbying of members elected without formal party commitment, Pangu leader Michael Somare was able to cobble together a National Coalition Government, which embraced Pangu (with 18 endorsed candidates winning, and additional pro-Pangu members bringing its numbers to 26), PPP (11), NP (eight), the Mataungan Association (three) and eight independents. This post-election lobbying of apparently unattached members set a precedent for all subsequent elections. The UP accepted the role of Opposition, and this party alignment was broadly maintained during the life of the 1972–77 Parliament (though in 1975 some UP members supported the Government on critical divisions).

In 1972, a Constitutional Planning Committee was appointed to begin the process of preparing a constitution for the independent state. Its Final Report (1974) contained only a brief comment on political parties, proposing that parties be registered and supporting the idea of public funding for parties. The Constitution subsequently provided that organic laws would make provision to ensure the integrity of political parties and candidates, but 25 years later this had not been done.

Between 1972 and the first post-independence election in 1977, there were several significant developments in the incipient party system. One was the emergence of the Nationalist Pressure Group (NPG) in 1974. The NPG represented a coalescence of members who supported the proposals of the Constitutional Planning Committee against modifications put forward by the Government. Although it voted as a cohesive group on ‘national’ issues in 1974–75, the NPG specifically avoided the label ‘party’ and its 18 core members — drawn from the four major parties plus the Mataungan Association and a newly formed Country Party (whose members were recruited mostly from the UP) — retained their party affiliations. Another development was the election, in a by-election in 1976, of a second member representing the separatist Papua Besena movement, whose leader, Josephine Abaijah, had been elected in 1972, and the subsequent announcement of a Papua Party. A third was the split and virtual collapse of the NP in 1976, after Somare had dismissed from Cabinet its leader and deputy leader, and a move by them to withdraw all NP members from the coalition failed. The NP split provides an early example of the way in which parties have fractured when some party members have jockeyed for a place in a new coalition while others have wanted to hold on to ministerial portfolios. By the end of the 1972–77 Parliament, party allegiances, as well as coalition ties, were looking fragile and there were calls for variously an all-party system and a no-party system.

In 1977, the party mass organisations, which had generally atrophied since 1972, were revived for the country’s fourth and inaugural post-independence election. This time, of the 879 candidates who contested the 109 seats, 295 (30 per cent) were endorsed by one, or more, of the three major parties. In addition, a number of Papuan candidates stood for Papua Besena, which in 1977 appeared to have evolved from an ill-defined separatist movement to a fully fledged political party. Observers of the 1977 poll seem to have been generally agreed that political parties had a substantial impact on the election, though in an interim report on the election Bill Standish concluded that while in the towns, competition ‘was more in terms of modern associations’, in rural areas ‘clan voting prevailed’. In 1977, as in 1972, uncertainties about the political allegiances of some candidates resulted in intense post-election lobbying among those who hoped to be able to put together a government. One proposal was for a ‘National Alliance’ including UP, Papua Besena, the Country Party and NP. Another was for an Islands-based Alliance for Progress and Regional Development, led by the two former NPG spokesmen, John Momis and John Kaputin. In the event, the successful combination was a coalition of the enlarged Pangu and PPP membership (38 and 20 respectively) with most of the Mataungan and North Solomons members and two UP defectors, led by Somare. After several months of infighting within the Opposition, former NP minister Iambakey Okuk emerged as Opposition Leader. Having attempted unsuccessfully to bring together his Highlands supporters, Papua Besena members and some others in a People’s United Front, Okuk revived the NP and, as its leader, waged an aggressive campaign against the Coalition.

In November 1978, after a growing unease in the relationship between PPP and Pangu (which had probably more to do with personalities and leadership styles than with policies), PPP withdrew from the Coalition. Pangu was maintained in office by a split within the UP, which brought about half of that party’s members across the floor to the Government. In 1978–79, the Somare Government survived three no-confidence motions initiated by Okuk, but in January 1980, after a Cabinet reshuffle, Momis and Kaputin withdrew from the Coalition, forming a new party, the Melanesian Alliance (MA), and, two months later, with their support, a no-confidence vote against the Somare Government succeeded. Chan became Prime Minister as the head of a National Alliance Government comprising PPP, NP, MA, Papua Besena and part of UP.

The Alliance was able to hold on to office until the scheduled elections of 1982, but it was, to say the least, an improbable coalition. PPP and NP, broadly aligned in support of capitalist development and foreign investment (though with little personal empathy between Chan and Okuk), were at one end of a political spectrum from the MA, which regarded itself as being to the left of Pangu and whose leaders were strongly identified with economic nationalism and the aim of self-sufficiency; and Papua Besena, which owed its origins in large part to fear and distrust of Highlanders, was a strange bedfellow for a coalition in which Highlands members were a large component and whose deputy leader (Okuk) was a staunch Highlands nationalist.

Between 1977 and 1981, extra-parliamentary party organisation, such as it was, had again atrophied, but party organisations were resuscitated in the lead-up to the 1982 elections and several new groupings appeared. Indeed, in the 1982 elections, parties seemed to be more salient than ever. Pangu, PPP, UP, NP, MA and Papua Besena/Papua Party all fielded candidates, while two new groups — a Papua Action Party (which had links with the NP) and a predominantly Papuan ‘Independent Group’ headed by former Defence Force Commander Ted Diro — emerged as significant contenders. Some 59 per cent of the 1,125 candidates who stood in 1982 were endorsed by one or more of these eight parties. My own observation of the 1982 campaign in the East Sepik suggested not only that nearly all candidates sought a party label (some, indeed, more than one) but that a high proportion of voters could accurately attach party labels to most candidates; nevertheless, ‘party organization was still fairly rudimentary and … local and kin ties and exposure to the electorate were still critically important’.

Notwithstanding this, party attachment for most candidates seemed still to be loose and it was not rare for a candidate who failed to get endorsement or assistance from one party to turn to another; for some parties and in some electorates, party attachment meant little more than the use of a label. Further, in a number of instances, party members stood against endorsed candidates of their own party against their party’s interests (though in some cases, parties — especially Pangu — supported more than one candidate in order to split the local vote of opponents of their endorsed candidate). Overall, it seemed that although there was in 1982 some increase in party voting, personal and local loyalties were still considerably more important for the majority of voters.

The outcome of the 1982 election was a victory for Pangu, which — apart from the recently established MA — was the only party to increase its representation in the Parliament. Somare was duly re-elected to the Prime Ministership, heading a government comprising Pangu (with 50 members), UP (six) and a number of members who were either elected as independents or switched from other parties after the election. Diro emerged as Opposition Leader, and, surprisingly, Parliamentary Leader of the NP, after Okuk had lost his seat in Simbu; but when, in 1983, Okuk was returned in a by-election, Diro stepped down from both posts in Okuk’s favour. The MA aligned itself with the NP/Independent Group and Papua Party in opposition, but the PPP for a while occupied the middle benches.

In 1985–86, Pangu Pati suffered two splits. The first occurred when a group of 15 members led by Deputy Prime Minister Paias Wingti (a Highlander, who had been elected as a UP candidate but switched to Pangu in 1977) left to form a new party, the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM). The second came in early 1986 when a small
group of senior Pangu members, led by Somare’s Sepik colleague Anthony Siaguru, formed a Pangu Independent Group (PIG). The PIG sought acceptance as an ‘affiliate’ of Pangu, but when this was refused they broke away to form the League for National Advancement. The Somare Government survived a vote of no confidence early in 1985 with support from the NP and MA, but in November a vote of no confidence went against Somare, and Wingti became Prime Minister, leading a coalition consisting of PDM, PPP, NP and some Pangu, UP and MA defectors. During 1986, there was tension within the Coalition, particularly between Wingti, Okuk (until his death in late 1986) and Chan, but the Coalition was still intact when Parliament rose for the 1987 election.

As the 1987 election approached, five new parties emerged, including the People’s Action Party (PAP), a Papuan-based party led by Diro, which drew on the support for the earlier Papuan Action Party and Diro’s Independent Group, and the Morobe Independent Group (MIG) headed by former student leader and Morobe Premier, Utula Samana. This gave a total of 15 parties. Despite the increased number of parties, the percentage of party-endorsed candidates among the 1,513 candidates nominating dropped to 37, and independents won 22 of the 109 seats. In a pre-election survey of voters conducted by Yaw Saffu, to the question ‘What is it that you would look for in the candidate you will be voting for?’, only 3.4 per cent of respondents answered ‘Party’. When votes were counted, Pangu had 26 seats, PDM 17, NP 12, MA seven, PAP six, PPP five, MIG four, LNA three, Papua Party three and UP one. Elections for the three remaining seats were postponed. It was widely expected that Somare would be able to put together a winning coalition, but in the event it was Wingti who was successful, emerging as the leader of what Somare described as ‘a ramshackle gaggle of unruly independents’, which included the PPP and a newly formed Papuan Bloc led by Diro, which included PP, PAP and some independents.

In the next months, the governing coalition came under severe strain. Diro, who had served as Minister for Forests in the previous Wingti Government, had been named in an investigation into the forestry industry and faced a leadership tribunal as well as perjury charges; it was also disclosed that he had received ‘campaign contributions’ of almost $A180,000 from Indonesian Armed Forces Commander, Benny Murdani, contrary to the provisions of PNG’s Constitution. Notwithstanding this, Diro continued to press for appointment as Deputy Prime Minister and for more Cabinet posts for the Papuan-dominated PAP, and failed to dissociate himself from rumours of an impending coup, after Wingti had removed the commander of the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) and three colonels, all of whom were Papuans. Kaputin, who had been expelled from the MA for joining the Wingti Coalition in 1985, initiated a meeting of New Guinea Islands’ members (attended by 10 of the 17 Islands members), which called for ‘political stability, social justice and a return to the principles of democracy’. And there were defections from the governing coalition, one member referring to the Government as ‘morally
corrupt’. Facing a vote of no confidence, the Government adjourned Parliament. During the adjournment there were, first, moves for a ‘grand coalition’ including PDM, PPP and Pangu, over which talks collapsed, and then the signing of an ‘irrevocable memorandum of understanding’ for the formation of a Government of National Reconciliation, embracing PDM, PPP, Pangu, PAP and Samana’s renamed Melanesian United Front (MUF). But while Wingti was signing an agreement with Pangu, he was secretly negotiating with the NP (then led by Wingti’s fellow Highlander Michael Mel), and, in a Cabinet reshuffle in June 1988, NP was dealt in and Pangu excluded.

A motion of no confidence was foreshadowed as soon as Parliament met later that month, and there was a spate of defections from PDM. The NP also split, again. In the subsequent vote, a combination of Pangu (including a few members who defected back to Pangu), most of the Papuan Bloc, the MA, LNA, a faction of NP and a few others prevailed over Wingti’s leadership, and Rabbie Namaliu, who had replaced Somare as Parliamentary Leader of Pangu in July 1988, became PNG’s fourth Prime Minister.

Despite the enlightened leadership of Namaliu, and the passage of a budget of ‘unity, reconciliation and reconstruction’, the period from mid-1988 to 1992, when the next election took place, was turbulent. It saw the start of the Bougainville rebellion, unrest within the PNGDF, economic downturn and escalating problems of law and order. Several votes of no confidence were initiated, and Parliament was adjourned for further long periods in 1989 and 1990. In 1991, the Constitution was amended to extend the initial grace period for votes of no confidence from six months to 18. There were several Cabinet reshuffles, which, among others, saw Diro eventually achieve the position of Deputy Prime Minister, a position he held until April 1991, when he was found guilty of 81 counts of misconduct under the Leadership Code. The decision of the Leadership Tribunal in the Diro case precipitated a brief constitutional crisis when the Governor-General, a Papuan and former president of the PAP, refused to sack Diro. The tensions brought about by all this political activity saw a split in the PAP, defections from PDM and PPP, and from Pangu, and several parties expelled rebellious MPs.

Commenting on Wingti’s political machinations in mid-1988, Saffu suggested that ‘Wingti’s modus operandi had helped to raise the levels of cynicism and deception in PNG politics’. Indeed, the well-publicised comings and goings in the Parliament of 1987–92 left many people cynical about political parties, and, although there was, once more, something of a revival of extra-parliamentary party activity in the lead-up to the 1992 election, parties seem to have been less salient in 1992 than in the previous two or three elections. Six of the parties that had contested in 1987 had disappeared (including Samana’s MIG/MUF, Papua Besena and the Papua Party), and several new parties emerged, including the People’s Solidarity Party (PSP), a breakaway from the PAP. The PSP polled well (probably in part at the expense of the PAP), but failed to win a seat and subsequently faded away.

In 1992, the fee for candidature was raised from K100 to K1,000 in an attempt to counteract the growth in the number of candidates standing, but the number continued to rise, to 1,655. Of these, 75 per cent chose to stand as independents. In 1987, the seven major parties (Pangu, PPP, PDM, MA, PAP, LNA and NP) won 51 per cent of votes and 76 seats; in 1992, their share of the vote fell to 32 per cent and they won 68 seats. Pangu was the most successful party, but its percentage of the total vote fell from 34 to 9 per cent and seats won from 50 to 20. In the vote for Prime Minister, Wingti, in coalition with the PPP, LNA and a group of independents, defeated Namaliu by a single vote. As in every Parliament to date, there was a mid-term change of government in 1994 when, having resigned and been re-elected as Prime Minister in a move to avoid a vote of no confidence, Wingti was removed after a Supreme Court ruling against his action. In the reshuffling that followed, PPP leader Chan became Prime Minister, outvoting prominent Port Moresby politician Bill Skate of the Papua New Guinea First Party (PNGFP); Chan headed yet another coalition government, in partnership with Pangu. Chris Haiveta, who had succeeded Namaliu as Pangu leader, became Deputy Prime Minister.

In 1997, there was a major political upheaval when the Chan Government, having secretly negotiated a contract with ‘military consultants’ Sandline International to bring an end to the Bougainville rebellion, was challenged by the Commander of the PNGDF, Brigadier General Singirok. Singirok denounced the contract, detained the Sandline mercenaries and called on Chan, Haiveta and the Defence Minister to stand down. An inquiry was set up and a major crisis averted, but in the ensuing election Chan lost his seat.

Once again, there was a proliferation of parties on the eve of the 1997 election. New parties included the People’s National Congress (PNC), which replaced the PNGFP as Skate’s Papuan-based party; the Movement for Greater Autonomy (MGA), a New Guinea Islands-based party headed by former Manus Premier, Stephen Pokawin; and the National Alliance (NAL). In 1995, Somare, then a member of the Chan Government, had opposed legislation that fundamentally changed the country’s provincial government system. As a result, he was dropped from Cabinet and became alienated from some of his Pangu colleagues. He subsequently founded the NA as a new political grouping, comprising the MA, the MGA (which also had its origins in the provincial government debate), some Pangu supporters and progressive independents. Somare used the NA as his electoral vehicle in 1997. Of the 2,372 candidates contesting, 712 were listed as having party attachment, though parties in 1997 seemed to have fewer resources to offer and party leaders seemed to be less active outside their own electorates. On these figures, the proportion of independents fell slightly, to 70 per cent, though the actual number rose. PAP fielded the largest number of candidates; surprisingly, given its Papuan origins, more than half of these were in Highlands electorates, where there were multiple PAP candidates in a number of electorates.

When votes were counted, PPP (which had won eight seats in 1992 but had seen its support grow to 32 before the parliamentary recession of 1997) had 16 seats; Pangu had also lost ground, gaining 13 seats; the NA had 11 (including four MA seats); PDM nine; NP seven; PNC six (all in Papuan electorates); PAP six, and there were 38 independents. In the scramble for numbers prior to Parliament sitting, it looked as though Somare would emerge on top. The NA-led coalition failed to get the numbers in Parliament when Skate, who had promised support for Somare, took his PNC into a rival grouping and was rewarded with the Prime Ministership.

The Skate Government faced several minor crises between 1997 and 1999 — mostly self-made. In December 1998, there was another long adjournment of Parliament designed to avoid a vote of no confidence (between July 1998 and June 1999, Parliament met for only 17 days). Tensions had emerged between Skate and Haiveta, and when, in 1999, Skate dropped Haiveta from Cabinet, Pangu withdrew from the Coalition and backed the PDM in a successful move to oust Skate. Wingti having lost his seat in 1997, the leadership of PDM was assumed in 1998 by former Treasury Secretary and Central Bank Governor, Sir Mekere Morauta, who had stood as an independent in 1997 and had been a minister in the Skate Government before becoming one of 12 ministers sacked by Skate. In the vote for Prime Minister, Morauta won by 99 votes to five — with Skate voting for him! Morauta thus became PNG’s sixth Prime Minister. In 2001, a number of members switched allegiance to the PDM, giving it for a while an absolute majority in Parliament, but the 2002 elections saw a shift away from the party.

See also: Characteristics of political parties in PNG

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