Papua New Guinea goes to the polls on Saturday with almost 3,500 candidates battling for just over a hundred parliamentary seats and control of what will be an unprecedented boom in funds as projects to develop natural resources start coming on stream. Voters hope the two-week-long election will end a prolonged political crisis which has left the South Pacific archipelago with two competing prime ministers for much of the past year after parliament backed Peter O’Neill, defying the courts which supported elder statesman Michael Somare. Analysts say it is impossible to predict a winner in a country where more than half of sitting lawmakers lose their seats at each election and where power goes to the leader who can cobble a coalition in post-election negotiations. “There are really two elections,” Australian National University Papua New Guinea specialist Sinclair Dinnen told Reuters. “The first is where the people vote. Then after the elections, we see the process of coalition formulation.” Adding to the uncertainty are the record number of 3,435 candidates from 46 political parties, all vying for just 111 seats in parliament.
Elections are highly charged events in Papua New Guinea, an often volatile Melanesian country of 6.5 million people with 700 languages groups, 600 tropical islands and a mainland divided by the rugged mountains of the volatile highlands region. A massive police operation has been launched to prevent the violence that has marred previous votes, with neighbouring Australia and New Zealand lending assistance.
Despite its mineral wealth, successive governments have been unable to deliver infrastructure or services to the people, with around 80 percent of the population living on subsistence village farming and small cash crops. The elections, held every five years, take on extra significance as lawmakers have access to millions of dollars worth of discretionary funds which they spend on development in their electorates, prompting often heated contests as clans jostle to get their candidate into parliament.