Following unprecedented violence and voter fraud, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has returned Prime Minister James Marape to power. Election-related conflict displaced thousands of people, closed health centres, and caused extensive death and injury.
In what some people are labelling ‘PNG’s worst election in living memory’, reports of illegal voting, bribery, voter intimidation, and even murder became widespread. Conflict between rival political factions escalated, with at least 30 people being killed during the election campaign. Videos surfaced online of voters being attacked with machetes outside an election counting centre. Adding to the turmoil, four of the leading candidates for prime minister were excluded from running due to criminal convictions including murder, rape, and conspiracy to defraud.
Former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill blamed Marape for the violence, publicly condemning Marape for voter fraud and election manipulation. Due to concerns of election interference, O’Neill appealed to the Supreme Court of PNG to delay Parliament’s return until all electorates had finished counting. The Supreme Court rejected the case, granting clearance for Marape to form a coalition government and return to power.
Following Marape’s re-election, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese offered congratulations and affirmed the ‘special’ Australia-PNG partnership. Marape also became one of the first world leaders to meet with Albanese after his election in May. The two men met during a 15-minute Zoom conference on Albanese’s first day in office, during which he referred to Australia as a ‘long-term friend’ of PNG.
Albanese’s words should be taken as more than mere sentiment. As geographic neighbours and economically interconnected nations, Australia and PNG form a critical alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. During PNG’s recent election, for example, the Australian Defence Force provided physical security to support PNG’s armed forces. PNG also benefits as the single largest recipient of Australian aid. Economically, Australia benefits from a multibillion-dollar investment in PNG, making PNG one of Australia’s most significant bilateral partners and export markets.
The symbiotic relationship between Australia and PNG speaks to the importance of democratic elections in PNG for residents of both countries. Australia has intimate involvement in many of PNG’s domestic affairs including health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure. By promoting free and fair elections in PNG, Australia empowers a stronger northern neighbour, which provides both natural resources and geographic protection.
Further championing Australia’s rapport with PNG, Australia announced Pacific Step-up as one of its ‘highest foreign policy priorities.’ Pacific Step-up involves investments in renewable energy, disaster resilience, telecommunications, and security. Through both economic support and close collaboration, the program fosters stronger Pacific partnerships, increases commercial opportunities, and enhances historical and cultural relations. Additionally, Australia is continuing its investment in PNG with a 580-million dollar commitment to upgrade PNG’s port infrastructure.
Along with Pacific Step-up, Australia’s development partnership with PNG promotes peace and interconnectedness. Specifically, the partnership addresses economic stability, sexual violence, COVID-19 recovery, and climate-resilient infrastructure. Further, by collaborating with international partners including the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank, Australia and PNG are reforming PNG’s economy. These initiatives highlight the significance of promoting shared stability throughout the region, which consequently leads to improved defence networks and more robust commercial opportunities.
However, despite such programs as Pacific Step-up and the development partnership, PNG struggles to maintain democratic conventions. Throughout the 2022 election, 90,000 people were displaced, 25,000 children were unable to safely attend school, and scores of people were victims of violent crimes.
To foster safety and equity in PNG, Australia needs to invest itself more deeply in PNG’s elections, while empowering democratic integrity in the Indo-Pacific. Peace-building efforts, however, must not seek to impose Australia’s will upon other nations. There is a balance between promoting democracy and respecting each nation’s right to self-determination. Rather than forcibly encouraging fair elections, Australia should form community networks that promote democratic debate, leverage investment opportunities to advocate mediation, and gather support for shared values.
By prioritising democracy and working closely with neighbouring countries, Australia can minimise geopolitical corruption. Additionally, by engaging with PNG to establish fair elections, Australia strengthens one of its most essential economic and regional security partners. Death, corruption, and intimidation should not be commonplace election practices, and if democracy prevails, PNG will hopefully never experience another election like 2022.
Frankie Berardi is studying law with Charles Darwin University.