Papua New Guinea is about to start its ninth general election, with voting taking place between June 24 and July 8, followed by counting over subsequent weeks. The coalition government led by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill enters the election under siege, facing battles on political, legal and economic fronts. From the outside, O’Neill looks to be in a strong position. His government holds a significant majority in parliament, and the opposition is fractured. However, alliances in Papua New Guinea are often unstable, and the result of the election is far from certain. O’Neill, then treasurer, wrested power in 2011 from long-serving Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, widely known as Papua New Guinea’s “Grand Chief.” The country was starting the construction of its largest natural resource project, a $19 billion liquefied natural gas project that was expected to transform the nation’s economy.
Anticipating overflowing coffers, the government made bold expenditure commitments, including free education, free healthcare and a massive decentralization program. The expected windfall from the project even emboldened the prime minister to make a dubious deal to acquire a stake in Papua New Guinea’s largest company, Oil Search, an oil and gas explorer that has a stake in the LNG project.
The government also committed to hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in November 2018. The summit, which will attract thousands of delegates and journalists, will be the largest conference gathering ever held in Papua New Guinea.