Bougainville's election and the road to independence

By Dr Kerryn Baker
Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University

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Polling has just wrapped up in Bougainville for a milestone election on the road to potentially becoming the world’s newest independent nation.

Late last year, a referendum on self-determination resulted in a huge majority (97.7%) in favour of independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). But the path to nationhood may not be smooth.

The referendum was non-binding, and negotiations between the Government of PNG and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) will ultimately decide its future political status. The elections this month will determine the make-up of the ABG going forward, and who will take leading roles in these crucial negotiations.

The most closely-watched race, unsurprisingly, is the presidential contest. Outgoing president John Momis won a resounding victory in the last polls in 2015. Yet he has now reached the term limit set out in Bougainville’s constitution, and despite legal challenges to establish his right to run for a third term, he was ruled ineligible to contest in 2020.

The exit of Momis – a long dominant figure in PNG and Bougainvillean politics – has left something of a power vacuum in this pivotal stage in Bougainvillean history.

Twenty-five candidates are running for president, by far the largest field ever, with no clear favourite.

Candidates include ex-Bougainville Revolutionary Army commanders Ishmael Toroama and Sam Kauona, who placed second and third respectively in 2015; former President James Tanis, who was in office 2008-2010; Joe Lera, who resigned as the regional member for Bougainville in the PNG Parliament to contest; Fidelis Semoso, the former ABG Minister for Economic Development; Peter Tsiamalili Jr., the former head of the Papua New Guinea Sport Foundation; and two prominent women candidates, Ruby Mirinka and Magdalene Toroansi.

As well as Mirinka and Toroansi, at least 44 other women are contesting the elections. More than half are contesting the three seats reserved for women, one of few such systems in the Pacific region, which has the dubious distinction of having the lowest levels of women’s parliamentary representation in the world.

Women's political representation in Bougainville

Reserved seats for women were introduced in Bougainville in recognition of the roles women played in the peace process that brought the protracted Bougainville conflict to an end, and in traditional governance in the mostly matrilineal societies of the region.

This recognised space for women in political decision-making stands in stark contrast to the PNG Parliament - one of only three in the world to currently have no female members. Yet Bougainville’s reserved seats have also been criticised as acting as a ceiling on women’s representation, with most female candidates contesting each other in the reserved seats rather than running in open seats.

In 2015, Josephine Getsi became the first women elected in an open seat. She is re-contesting in 2020 along with at least 15 other women in the open seats, another record number and a positive sign – along with the two women running for the presidency – of women candidates becoming more visible and active in the ‘open’ political contests.

Dozens of people line up to vote
People line up to vote in Bougainville's 2019 independence referendum. Picture: Kerryn Baker

Problems with the electoral process

The election has been plagued, however, with allegations of misconduct, including ballot box tampering. Both the Bougainville Chief of Police Francis Tokura and Electoral Commissioner George Manu have spoken out against the spreading of ‘false information’ about the election, particularly on social media. One persistent issue that the Electoral Commissioner has acknowledged is with the roll.

In this election, as is common in ABG and PNG national elections in Bougainville, there have been many reports of people being turned away from polling station because their names cannot be found on the roll. This issue was not as pronounced in the 2019 referendum; while there was a concerted effort to update the roll prior to the vote last year, the main way this was dealt with was in the introduction of provisional votes.

Under this system, voters whose names could not be found on the roll could still cast a ballot that would be scrutinised at the counting centre before being accepted (or not). The use of provisional voting was a first for a PNG electoral process and was very successful in minimising conflict at polling stations over roll issues.

Importantly, most provisional and declaration votes (around 70%) were accepted in the final count, suggesting the majority of voters who would otherwise be turned away do have a legitimate right to vote.

The provisional voting system played a significant role in the success of the referendum process, but under existing legislation there are no provisions for its use in ABG elections. This has led to renewed frustrations from would-be voters, and erodes faith in the electoral process.

A coronavirus election in the Pacific

Of course, in the background is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

On 7 August, just days prior to the start of polling, the first Covid-19 case in Bougainville was confirmed, a student in their 20s who had travelled to the region from the PNG capital Port Moresby. The polling period for the election was extended from two to three weeks in light of the pandemic, although most polling finished ahead of schedule.

The state of emergency currently in place in Bougainville required polling officials, security personnel, scrutineers and candidates – but not voters – to use PPE during polling, and for social distancing to be practised at polling stations, although this proved difficult to enforce.

Managing the impacts of Covid-19 on health, the economy, and the negotiation process for the future political status of Bougainville, is yet another challenge that will face the incoming government.

Banner image: Traditional dancers in Buka, Bougainville. Source: Jeremy Weate via Flickr

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