Electoral Systems in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) used an optional preferential voting system in elections held in 1964, 1968 and 1972, but then switched to a first-past-the-post system in 1975. The number of candidates contesting elections subsequently increased at every election, reaching an average of 27 per constituency at the 2002 polls. Numbers of victors obtaining more than 50 per cent of the vote declined, with the majority of MPs being elected on the basis of less than 20 per cent of the vote in 1992, 1997 and 2002. National elections became vehicles for the articulation of clan rivalries, particularly in the Highlands. Parties proved, at most, loose associations, which politicians were readily willing to ditch in pursuit of ministerial portfolios. Customary ‘big men’ competed for wealth, influence and authority through electoral processes, driven by pecuniary rewards attached to state office-holding. Whether or not they joined nominal political parties, victors’ positions remained highly precarious. More than half of all MPs lost their seats at most elections after independence, with incumbent turnover reaching an all time high of 75 per cent at the 2002 polls.

Inside Parliament, politicians frequently steer clear of political parties, or form fleeting party attachments that play second fiddle to personal advancement. No single party has ever obtained an absolute majority in Parliament. PNG had 10 governments from 1975 to 2002, three of which were dislodged by votes of no confidence. Governments are frequently formed by backroom cabals (‘lock-ups’), which proceed to divide among themselves the spoils of office. MPs on the Opposition benches thus have every incentive to, and little institutional inhibition against, plot the next no confidence bid. Many prefer to sit on the ‘middle benches’, in a twilight position between government and opposition, hoping to secure ministerial portfolios at the next reshuffle. Instead of yielding the frequently anticipated advantage of strong and stable government (due to seat swings that enhance or magnify narrower vote swings), the first-past-the-post system provides the backdrop for a highly volatile parliamentary set-up, in which unscrupulous and opportunistic ‘rubber band’ or ‘yoyo’ politicians prove willing to repeatedly switch allegiances for personal or constituency gain.

As a result, Papua New Guinean reformists have taken steps to strengthen the party system. The OLIPPC was enacted in 2002 and was aimed at strengthening political parties via controls over funding and restrictions on party-hopping. Those who contest elections as members of parties receive state financial support. Independents do not. Once a vote has been held for a prime minister, MPs are obliged to follow the party line on budgetary and constitutional votes, and in votes of no confidence. Cases involving MPs who cross the floor or fail to follow the party whip on these issues are heard by an Ombudsman Commission and, if necessary, are referred to a Leadership Tribunal, with the ultimate sanction being the forfeit of seats. New rules are aimed at restricting post-election horse-trading, by giving the party with the largest number of seats the first opportunity to form a government. One consequence, witnessed at the 2002 polls, was a sizeable increase in the official number of political parties, which rose from 12 in 1997 to 43 in 2002, although many of these existed only on paper and failed to obtain a single MP. The rules have proved difficult to implement, and, as in India after the introduction of similar legislation in 1985, much party side-switching continues, either illegally or (where this is sanctioned collectively by a party) legally.

A limited preferential voting system (LPV) was also introduced in PNG, and came into effect in the wake of the 2002 general elections. It was aimed chiefly at avoiding the proliferation of MPs elected on the basis of less than 10 or 20 per cent of the vote. To cast a valid (or formal) ballot, citizens are required to list three candidates in order of preference (incomplete ballots with only one or two preferences marked are to be discarded as invalid or informal). If no candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, the lowest-polling candidate is eliminated and his or her voters’ second-preference votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates. This process of elimination of candidates and redistribution of votes continues until one candidate obtains 50 per cent plus one of valid votes or until ballots are exhausted. PNG’s new electoral system is designed to encourage more moderate or conciliatory candidates, who reach out beyond their core bases of support in the hope of obtaining second- or third-preference votes from other communities. Both reforms, in different ways, anticipate and encourage a more issue and/or party-based political culture. Just as the candidate with the broader appeal is anticipated, after the introduction of the LPV, to pick up preference votes outside his or her community, so too the more broadly aligned party MP is to receive financial encouragement under the OLIPPC.

Implicit in the philosophy behind the introduction of the OLIPPC and the LPV was the view that Westminster-style political organisation and the first-past-the-post system were in fact responsible for vote-splintering among numerous candidates, high incumbent turnover and volatile allegiances inside Parliament. If these are shown to owe their origin to inappropriate electoral laws or the constitutional set-up, then institutional change would appear to be a viable method of broadening the basis of parliamentary representation and stabilising governments. If those features have other origins, the two reforms are likely to do more to change the form, rather than the substance, of PNG politics. Claims that electoral rules were responsible for PNG’s hyper-fractionalised party space sit oddly next to the Duvergerian association between plurality rules and a two-party system, suggesting that the ultimate origin of vote-splintering lies elsewhere. Variations in the financial incentive structure made little difference in the past. As Ron May points out, even a tenfold rise in the PNG nomination fee in 1991 did little to arrest candidate proliferation.

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