Characteristics of Political Parties in PNG

It is impossible, within a short space, to detail the constant comings and goings of members, defecting from one party and joining another, sometimes only temporarily, and the constant wheeling and dealing among party leaders seeking to advance their party’s interests or their own ministerial aspirations through the formation of new coalitions or the preservation of existing ones. The brief history conveys something of the flavour of party politics in PNG and provides a broad context within which some of the particular characteristics of political parties and the ‘party system’ in PNG can be highlighted.

Party organisation

Typically, political party organisation in PNG has been weak. Although, on paper, some of the larger parties have had organisational structures based on party branches, most parties have been essentially parliamentary alliances and have been dominated by prominent parliamentary members (or, in a few cases — the PPP with Julius Chan and the PDM with Paias Wingti — by former MPs who hoped to be re-elected). In between elections, party organisations in the electorate, such as they exist, have tended to lie dormant. Even Pangu, which in the 1970s and 1980s probably came closest to maintaining an effective organisation — at least in its strongholds of East Sepik and Morobe Provinces — found it difficult to sustain popular support.

As a result, the textbook functions of a political party in formulating policy options, recruiting supporters and selecting candidates have seldom been fulfilled in PNG. Indeed, rather than having party branches that select candidates from among their numbers for the open and provincial electorates, in most parties it is the party leader who seeks out and recruits likely candidates for party endorsement, frequently from outside the party.

Lack of mass membership has also affected party finances. In the elections of 1968 to 1987, the larger parties were generally able to offer financial and logistical support during election campaigns — financing candidate deposits and the printing of posters, providing vehicles, boats or outboard motors for campaigning and sometimes providing T-shirts or cash. Indeed, in the 1970s, several major parties had established ‘business arms’ to generate campaign funds. In the 1990s, most business arms seem to have been depleted and party funding for endorsed candidates seems to have substantially dried up. When funds were forthcoming to support party candidates, party leaders seem to have been the predominant source, strengthening the personalistic tendency in party identity.

In Parliament, party discipline has generally been weak, the institution of party whips not having become well entrenched, and, from an early stage, ‘party-hopping’ or ‘yoyo politics’ has been fairly commonplace.

Associated with the fluidity of party attachment has been a rise in the number of candidates standing as independents. Often such ‘independents’ have known party leanings and might have accepted campaign support from parties that might have endorsed another candidate, but have left themselves relatively free so that, if elected, they can ‘sell’ their parliamentary support to the party that makes the best offer. This has given rise to a particularly Papua New Guinean practice: after the declaration of candidates after elections, two or three camps are set up, generally well away from Port Moresby (even as far as Australia), by powerbrokers for the major parties, and attempts are made to physically assemble winning coalitions of elected members. Substantial inducements might be offered to attract members to a coalition, and, on occasion, there have been complaints that members have been held at such camps against their will (hence the term sometimes used for such occasions — ‘lock-ups’).

Bases of party differentiation

The ease with which some MPs have changed party allegiance reflects partly a lack of clear ideological (or other) differences between parties. In the period before independence, Pangu, together perhaps with the NP, was differentiated from the other parties primarily by its critical attitude towards the Australian Administration and its demand for early independence. The UP preferred a longer transition to independence, reflecting the view of its predominantly Highlander membership that they needed more time to ‘catch up’ with the coastal people, who had had a longer period of contact with the Colonial Administration and enjoyed higher levels of education and public sector employment. With the achievement of independence in 1975, this ceased to be a point of differentiation. Otherwise, the UP and PPP were generally regarded as more ‘business’ oriented and more favourably disposed towards foreign participation in the economy than Pangu, whose associations included trade unionists. But in practice the differences were not substantial, as the record of the first coalition government (1972-77) demonstrated. Indeed, on the one occasion that substantial differences on important policy issues did arise — namely, during the constitutional debates of 1974–75, which gave rise to the NPG — alignments cut across party lines. The nature of the coalition that replaced Somare in 1980 suggested further that issues were secondary to strategies for achieving parliamentary office, a view reinforced by the 1978 split in the UP and demonstrated in political behaviour ever since.

Among later-established parties, the MA, under the leadership of former Catholic priest John Momis and Bernard Narokobi, has been seen as a relatively socially progressive party; there have been several ‘labour’ parties, the most recent, the Papua New Guinea Labour Party, linked to the Papua New Guinea Trade Union Congress; there was a short-lived Socialist Democrat Party, ‘The True People’s Party’, established by former student leader Gabriel Ramoi; a Christian Democratic Party was launched in 1995, ‘with the vision to provide Christian Leadership in all levels of government’; and a United Resources Party emerged during the 1997-2002 Parliament with a platform that emphasised equitable returns from resource development. But none of these has done much to further the cause of issue-based politics. In the 1980s, there were suggestions that emerging social class divisions might provide a basis for political party development, but subsequent developments have not provided the evidence for such a view.

In the absence of class or ideological cleavages, ethnic or regional divisions seemed to be a likely base for political aggregation. The visiting UN mission in 1971 expressed concern at the regionalist tendencies in political party development, and the next year a local scholar forecast that ‘it will not be ideology or class interests which separate the parties — if there are more than one … regional interests are the most likely source from which political parties will derive their mass base’.34 Commentaries on the 1977 election tended to support this judgment: Hegarty observed that in the pre-election period ‘considerable social differentiation had become apparent’, but went on to conclude, ‘The basic cleavages in PNG politics are not ideological or class based but regional’, and Premdas and Steeves ventured the opinion, ‘It would be difficult for anything but an ethnically-based party system to emerge.’ By the 1980s, the regional concentration of party support appeared to have been diluted somewhat, nevertheless, there was still evidence of a regional element in party support: Pangu had its strongest support from the East Sepik and Morobe Provinces (in the case of East Sepik, Pangu support merged with loyalty to the provincial member, Pangu leader and ‘father of the nation’, Michael Somare), though from 1982 it began gaining support in parts of the Highlands; PPP and MA were strongest in the New Guinea Islands region; and UP, NP, Country Party, and subsequently PDM were associated primarily with Highlands politicians. More specifically, a Morobe District People’s Association (MODIPE) had been established in 1973 with the objective of preventing people from outside Morobe Province becoming parliamentary members for Morobe electorates (at this time, the Pangu member for Lae was a Papuan), and, in 1987, this sentiment was revived by former Morobe Premier, Utula Samana, who launched a Morobe Independent Group (MIG) and led it successfully into the election that year. A more substantial regional influence has been that exercised by Papuans. This began with the election of Papua Besena leader, Josephine Abaijah, and the formation of the Papua Party; it continued with the formation of the NP-associated Papua Action Party and Diro’s Independent Group, and the subsequent emergence of a Papuan Bloc in Parliament; these in turn provided the base of the PAP (initially a Papuan-dominated party, though in recent years it has received substantial support from the Highlands); after being elected in 1992 as an NP candidate, Skate formed the PNGFP, a Papuan-based party, and, in 1997, as leader of the PNC — a party with six Papuan MPs — he became the country’s first Papuan Prime Minister.

Longevity of parties

Not surprisingly, in this context, the majority of parties that have emerged over the years has been short-lived. There has been a proliferation of parties at each election, but those that do not achieve electoral success mostly disappear soon after the election. Many of these are essentially one-person parties.

Of the parties currently represented in the National Parliament, Pangu has enjoyed a continuous history as a major player since 1967, though it has suffered two major breakaways and is currently (early 2005) split into two factions; PPP also has a continuous record as a major party, though it too, is currently divided between two factions: UP and NP have survived, but with periods of low activity and records of factionalism; the MA has been a small but significant actor since its formation in 1980; and the PDM, PAP and NA have now been around, if sometimes fractious, for several years. Beyond that, parties have tended to come and go quite rapidly, mostly just before and just after elections.

See also: Political Parties in Papua New Guinea

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