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26 May 2017 6:15
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  •   Home > News > International

    Election season in Papua New Guinea reveals the stranger side of democracy

    It's election season in Papua New Guinea, which means it's time for colourful campaigns, rallies and outlandish promises by candidates.

    It's election season in Papua New Guinea, which means it's time for colourful campaigns, rallies and outlandish promises by candidates.

    When I wake up early, I like to walk the along the waterfront in Port Moresby. I've gotten to know the walkers, joggers and boot camp participants who exercise at sunrise.

    But one day a few weeks ago, there was an unfamiliar figure making the most of the morning cool.

    The man, in a tight-fitting 1980s-style tracksuit, was sprinting up and down a short section of the footpath, while another man filmed him on a mobile phone.

    He then lay on the concrete and did some enthusiastic sit ups, also while being filmed.

    The choreographed exercise regime continued for a while, before he jogged past the dog and I to the other end of the concrete, about 100 metres away.

    As we walked past, he was waiting for his driver to come and pick him up rather than running back.

    That man was former government minister turned opposition politician Ben Micah, and he was filming a campaign video for social media.

    Sadly, I never received the video of his jogging and sit ups, but I did get a video of him boxing sent to me instead.

    This is when I knew election season had begun in Papua New Guinea.

    Candidates don traditional outfits

    Mr Micah is not the only politician using stunts to kick off their campaign.

    Numerous candidates dressed themselves in traditional tribal outfits to hold ceremonies when they submitted their nomination forms.

    And National Events Minister Justin Tkatchenko danced with an enthusiastic troupe of supporters.

    Mr Tkatchenko's nomination ceremony shut down the streets of downtown Port Moresby, as thousands of supporters, all wearing green t-shirts, marched to an oval near the city.

    I've since seen people wearing those green t-shirts walking with friends wearing the red shirts of a rival candidate.

    So, it seems people from Port Moresby's poor settlements are simply enjoying being given some new clothes.

    Economic slump results in 'low key 2017 campaign'

    The campaign itself is usually a time when village people can expect a visit and a handout from candidates.

    People have told me the 2012 election campaign, which came as PNG enjoyed an economic boom, featured generous giveaways from candidates keen to buy support.

    Soft drinks, beer, food and cash were all expected from those who want people to vote for them.

    But there are also those people who sell a pig or dip into their savings to donate to a preferred candidate.

    This is both a sign of support and an investment in future preferential treatment.

    In contrast to 2012, people tell me the 2017 election campaign has been relatively quiet.

    PNG is in an economic slump and many candidates don't have the money to splash out, on either advertising or inducements.

    Strong media focus from Peter O'Neill

    One seeming exception is Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, who is running a relatively slick ad campaign.

    The Prime Minister's campaign has a strong social media focus, with Mr O'Neill utilising people like PNG's well known recording artist Jokema in one of their campaign videos.

    The song is targeted at rural Papua New Guineans with lower levels of education.

    In it, the singer explains the benefits of Mr O'Neill's policies of free education and free healthcare.

    These two policies are central to the Prime Minister's election campaign.

    The problem is, at the start of the school year many schools said they hadn't received their funding for the free education policy, and were still forced to charge fees.

    There are similar issues with the free healthcare policy.

    Many rural clinics I've visited are still displaying price lists for consultations and medicine — when they actually have medicine in stock.

    Policies receive little scrutiny

    But there is not much forensic scrutiny of these policies, or the more outlandish claims made by other candidates.

    Plenty promise to end corruption, build sealed roads and bring services to remote communities, things for which there is simply no money and sometimes no economic justification.

    Papua New Guineans have heard these promises many times before, yet many people I've spoken to remain hopeful about the election, and are rarely cynical.

    And they are also always keen to help out a foreign journalist like me with my coverage of election rallies.

    The crowd at a rally in Jiwaka, in the PNG Highlands, pointed out that my "gras" (hair) was a bit messy when I was trying to do a piece to camera.

    Then, a number of very tough-looking highland men proceeded to fix it for me, stroking my head from behind as I prepared to speak.

    Who needs a hair and makeup team when you have Jiwakan tribesman on your side?

    It's pretty hard to believe there could be any election violence from considerate men who want to make sure you look good on camera.


    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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