It's Friday in Goroka-payday for those townsfolk lucky enough to have a job. By nightfall, they're crowded into the Lahani Club, a flat-roofed beer hall thumping with country music. People who can afford to meet the clean-clothes-and-shoes dress code come here to escape begging wantoks (friends and kin) and try to turn their meager wages into "win money" on the club's 50 poker machines. "I always stop after 20 kina"-$6, about one-third of his weekly wage-says Jena Kano, a wiry man who works for a local coffee exporter. "But some people play and play until their whole pay packet is gone." Says Roger Gimbe, a chef at a local hotel: "In Papua New Guinea, everyone dreams of winning the jackpot." Playing the pokies is what the "small people" do. The big men-the ambitious and well connected-go in for a more rewarding game. It's called politics, and if you pull the right levers, you can't lose.
It's a running joke in P.N.G. that politicians are seldom seen outside the capital, Port Moresby. But in the run-up to the June 15 election, the entire country will become their casino. More than 2,000 candidates will be laying out pig roasts and promises in hopes of winning one of the 109 seats in Parliament. Gabriel Dusava, from Yangoru, near the Sepik river, is standing for the People's Progress Party, one of 43 parties contesting this poll. A former diplomat, he became an M.P. in 1997 but was soon dismissed for misconduct-"a procedural matter," he says, pursued "for reasons known only to my political enemies." He's standing again because his people need good leadership after "a lot of corruption, impropriety and humbug." But many candidates don't share his lofty motives. "A lot of people," says Dusava, "see politics as a way to get rich."
A new M.P. is already well off by P.N.G. standards. He earns $13,000 a year, more than 40 times the minimum wage. But it's not just a good salary that inspires dozens of professionals to nominate, draining the civil service, hospitals and schools of senior staff. And it's not just for the satisfactions of leadership that illiterate villagers run up huge debts campaigning. "I talk to young blokes who are standing," says Greg Anderson, executive director of the P.N.G. Chamber of Mines. "And I tell them, 'You're stupid. You'll spend all your cash, you'll throw away your career.' These are good people, but they're besotted with this election business; it's like a drug. They say, 'I'll be a big man, I'll be rich overnight.'"
Such dreams are hard to crush, adds Anderson, when so many former politicians are millionaires. "You'll see a guy stand for Parliament," says Goroka coffee planter Brian Greathead. "One week he's a village man, the next week he's an M.P., the next he might be a minister of state. And the next thing you hear, he's tripping around the world and got a house in Queensland. And people say, 'How did that happen?'"
Speakers of Tok Pisin, P.N.G.'s common language, don't need many words-1,500 or so. But in recent years they've had to learn a new one: korapsen. As election fever grows, talk of corruption is everywhere. Teachers, preachers, women's groups, business associations and politicians are all urging voters to choose "good leaders" who will put the national interest before personal gain. Cleaning up government was one of Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta's goals when he came to power in 1999. His efforts have won praise from anticorruption group Transparency International, the imf, aid donors and churches. Corruption "has been spreading its tentacles for many years," says Morauta; it now pervades every area of national life. And it's in many politicians' interest to block reform. But if the culture of corruption is not rooted out, warned the Catholic Bishops Conference last year, it "may endanger the survival of P.N.G. as a viable democratic state."
Even the humblest citizens know what korapsen is. "Politicians think about themselves, they don't think about the people," says Simon, a young man with betel-reddened teeth who scavenges a living on Goroka's streets. But P.N.G.'s people think about their leaders a great deal. If they can't read the newspapers, gossip carries the news. And almost every day it brings fresh insights-from Parliament, the Ombudsman and commissions of inquiry-into the workings of what former National newspaper editor Frank Kolma (who is standing for Parliament) calls "government of the people by the elites for the elites." Whenever corrupt M.P.s or their wantoks have had access to public funds, it seems, they've helped themselves: in the past decade, uncounted millions of kina have been plundered.
Money that should have been spent on electricity, health care, education and rural development has been funneled into private bank accounts, businesses and real estate. More than 50 serving M.P.s were recently accused of spending $2 million from the national road maintenance program on flashy four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorboats. In a case that riles Lahani Club patrons, $4 million set aside for community projects by the National Gaming Board, which collects taxes on poker machines, was allegedly pocketed by a small group of M.P.s.