On Shaky Foundations

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As soon as village polling stations around Banz, in Papua New Guinea's Western Highlands, closed last Monday evening, the ballot boxes-filled with votes for the national elections-were ceremoniously locked and sent to town by road. There, they were secured for the night in the police compound, ready to be airlifted to the provincial capital, Mount Hagen, for counting. But two boxes were late. When a truck finally bore them into Banz the next morning, an angry crowd was waiting. Convinced the delay meant foul play, they stopped the truck and smashed open the boxes. The pink ballots fluttered down the road, as worthless as confetti.

As counting continues in what many observers rate the worst elections ever conducted in P.N.G., people all over the country are complaining that their right to vote has been similarly trashed. The chaotic poll-marred by delays, bribery, vote rigging, violence, and the deaths of 16 people in the Highlands-has left candidates and voters "cynical and disillusioned and angry," says Carol Kidu, a widely respected M.P. whose seat in the capital Port Moresby was one of only 21 (out of 109) declared by week's end. "The time has come to ask serious questions," said Sir Anthony Siaguru, head of anti-corruption body Transparency International, who has joined a chorus of calls for an official investigation into the poll's conduct: "Has the election process been hijacked? Has the will of the majority of Papua New Guineans been thwarted?"

If so, it was by chaos more than conspiracy. The national Electoral Commission got its website to work, but not much else. Some polling officials refused to hand over ballot boxes or start counting votes until they received long-overdue wages; a helicopter company stopped flying officials to remote areas until its $A500,000 bill was settled. Thanks to the impromptu strikes and Highlands violence, the elections had to be extended from two weeks to more than three; in some places, polling teams never arrived.

Even where they did, the shambolic electoral roll-filled with the names of children and dead people, and missing those of adults who had voted in previous elections -meant many eligible citizens couldn't vote. In the East New Britain seat of former Prime Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu, "only half the people who should be voting were on the roll," he says. In Port Moresby, candidate Dominic Kakas found 200 people on the local roll with the same name and the same occupation-security guard.

After people voted, their fingertips were dipped in indelible ink. But "there was blatant use of bleach to remove the dye," says Lieut.-Col. James Laki, who monitored over 20 Highlands polling stations for the National Research Institute. "Many people voted more than once," he adds, "some under many names." Poll workers-several of whom were threatened or assaulted-often ignored the fraud for the sake of peace.

In the heavily tribal Highlands, villagers are commonly pressured to vote for their leaders' endorsed candidate. But voter intimidation occurred in urban areas as well, Laki says. In Goroka, tribal leaders commandeered a polling station and told voters they could pick only two of the 41 candidates on the ballot-or go elsewhere. At one station in Port Moresby, says M.P. Kidu, "my scrutineers were afraid to cast their own votes because of threats that if they voted the wrong way their house would be burned down."

As political parties negotiate to form coalitions with enough clout to govern-a process due to be completed by July 23-the courts are bracing for a flood of disputed returns. Namaliu, an M.P. for 20 years, has been accused by his defeated opponents of winning by "witchcraft, vote tampering and bribery." In the Western Highlands, candidates who lost to Paias Wingti (a former P.M. who retains immense political power) have complained of vote rigging and demanded a fresh election; in the capital, former P.M. Bill Skate faces similar accusations.

"People everywhere are dissatisfied," says Thomas Nen, who failed to win a seat in Lae. "But a new election would be just as bad" as this one. And unlikely to restore people's faith in parliamentary democracy, which Namaliu believes has been shaken, especially where "people feel deprived of their right to vote" or "suspect that results are based on fraud." The solution, he says, is a thorough investigation into "what went wrong and how we can avoid the same pitfalls in future." Other influential people-including caretaker P.M. Sir Mekere Morauta and corruption watchdog Siaguru-agree. "A perfect election must be our goal" in 2007, says Siaguru. Most people will be happy just to learn that their vote is worth more than the paper it's marked on.