Papua New Guineans go to the polls Saturday in an election the country’s leader sees as a turning point for a Pacific nation once described as a “totally dysfunctional blob”.
Since the last election five years ago, capping a turbulent political period which at one point saw PNG with two rival prime ministers, the rugged and sprawling country has grown up, according to Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.
“Through four decades of statehood, elections had been marred by supporters getting out of hand and making news headlines for all the wrong reasons,” he said ahead of polling booths opening.
“This election things are different. Candidates are presenting their ideas, some have policy platforms, and campaigning has been at a level of maturity that our nation can be proud of as we prepare to vote.
“Democratic process in Papua New Guinea has come of age, and our people are benefiting from this change.”
His claim of turning a corner is in sharp contrast to PNG being criticised by Australian diplomats in leaked cables as a “totally dysfunctional blob” ahead of the polls in 2007.
O’Neill’s People’s National Congress won the last election in 2012, and he was able to swell support by forming partnerships with smaller parties in the 111-seat parliament.
He cites achievements since then as delivering on key infrastructure promises and providing free education and health in a crime-ridden country that remains mired in poverty.
So far campaigning in the often-violent nation has been relatively peaceful, with only a handful of people dying in clashes between rival supporters.
Despite O’Neill’s rhetoric, Terence Wood, a PNG expert at the Australian National University, said it was too early to say the resource-rich country had come of age.
“There are still a lot of underlying issues present in PNG politics,” he told AFP.
“It is still infused with money, corruption is a big issue and violence in the community is of significant concern. None of that has really changed.”
Regardless of what happens, he said the most important outcome was stability.
“A stable democracy hasn’t given good governance to PNG, but instability is worse,” he said.
‘Government is broke’
O’Neill, 52, is up against Don Polye’s Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party and a coalition of former top politicians including ex-prime ministers Sir Michael Somare and Sir Mekere Morauta.
They accuse O’Neill of mismanaging an economy hurt by slumping global commodity prices, and reckless spending to achieve his goals.
“The major problem confronting our country is the fact that the government is broke,” said Ben Micah of the Peoples’ Progress Party, which is among those trying to unseat O’Neill.
“Certainly it’s the issue of the shortage of funds in government and issues of maladministration, issues of corruption that continue to plague the leadership of the prime minister and many of his ministers.”
O’Neill survived a no-confidence vote last year over corruption allegations following weeks of protests and civil disobedience urging him to resign.
His victory in 2012 drew an end to a bizarre period in PNG politics which began when the Supreme Court ruled in December 2011 that O’Neill’s election as prime minister by fellow MPs in August that year was illegal.
The court called for ailing former premier Somare, whose family resigned him on health grounds, to be reinstated.
It triggered a crisis which, at its height, saw the nation with two prime ministers, two governors-general and two police chiefs.
Hundreds of observers are in the country monitoring the polls, which close on July 8 and are notoriously open to bribery.
PNG villagers, who receive little from the political system, often see them as simply a “time of food” – a reference to the cash, pigs and other items candidates provide to win votes.