I traveled around Papua New Guinea for two weeks earlier this summer. My interest in coming here was related to my interest in state-building. PNG did not have a state when it was first colonized by Britain and Germany late in the 19th century. The Australians, who took over the colonial mandate from after World War I up until the country became independent in 1975, superimposed a modern state on top of a society whose dominant form of social organization remained the clan or, in pidgin, wantok. Given that there are parts of the highlands that had no contact whatsoever with the outside world until the 1930s (which is why anthropologists like Jared Diamond love studying PNG), the post-independence state has faced enormous obstacles in establishing itself.
The capital Port Moresby, for example, is not connected by road to any of the other major population centers in the country. Many districts in the Highlands are only accessible by plane or on foot, because there are no roads. The country is fragmented to a much greater degree than developing countries in Africa, with over 800 separate linguistic groups. The purpose of the trip was to study the nature of sub-national government in PNG, and how the political system really operates. I visited Kokopo and Rabaul on East New Britain, Goroka and Asaro in the Eastern Highlands, and left the country by walking across the Indonesian border near Vanimo on the northern coast.
I was privileged to get access to the electoral commission office in Goroka on one of the last days of the vote counting (the election started in June and by mid-July the count was not yet complete). This was the first national election in which a limited preferential voting system was introduced, modeled on the system used in Australia. It is first-past-the-post, but voters indicate second and third preferences, which are redistributed from losing candidates.
The purpose of the LPV system is to encourage broader alliances and get around the problem of “wasted” votes for marginal candidates. (Had the US employed an LPV system during the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore would have been president because the bulk of Ralph Nader’s votes would have been redistributed to Gore.) In PNG, the process is fascinating, because in most districts 30-40 candidates run for a single seat. It thus requires a little less than 30-40 exclusions to produce a candidate with a majority of the votes: a very time consuming process.
The counting was done in a sports stadium heavily guarded by police and the military, since physical intimidation of vote counters has taken place in previous Highlands elections. The photograph above shows the vote tally sheet during the exclusion process. At this point they were up to something like the 30th exclusion, but still didn’t expect to have the final tally until the following day. The whole process was incredibly well organized; each district had a separate room and a supervisor who directed the activity of perhaps thirty vote counters, along with “scrutineers” representing the different candidates who were to monitor the process. While we were there the chief elections official was able to announce the results of the first of the district races to be completed, something that was done with considerable ceremony.
One observer with long experience in PNG noted that it was remarkable how the government could organize an election with such great efficiency and professionalism, and yet could not deliver the most basic health and education services to the same constituents. The reason is, of course, that politicians really care about elections, not out of an abstract love of democracy, but because it is the route to being able to acquire and then distribute resources.