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Disorderly democracy: political turbulence and institutional reform in Papua New Guinea

CollectionsANU Dept. of Pacific Affairs (DPA) formerly State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program
Title: Disorderly democracy: political turbulence and institutional reform in Papua New Guinea
Author(s): May, Ronald
Keywords: Papua New Guinea
political history
democratic government
political parties
provincial government
institutional reform
Date published: 2003
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) discussion paper series: 2003/3
Papua New Guinea is one of the few post-colonial states that has managed to maintain an unbroken record of democratic government. Parliamentary elections have been held regularly on schedule (the latest in June 2002), and although no government has lasted a full parliamentary term, every change of government has followed constitutional procedures. All changes of government (most of them by parliamentary votes of no confidence against the prime minister) have been accepted by both defeated members of parliament (MPs) and the general public. The judiciary has maintained its independence. Notwithstanding occasional tensions in relations between successive governments and elements within the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), Papua New Guinea has not experienced a military coup. The Freedom House index ranks Papua New Guinea as ‘free’. Yet despite this, both within Papua New Guinea and outside, commentators tend to portray Papua New Guinea as a country marked by political instability, if not chaos, with a state on the verge of collapse. In 1999, for example, Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister, in the context of debate about electoral reform, referred to the country’s National Parliament (of which he is still a member – and in 2002 again prime minister) as a house full of ‘rejects’, lacking a mandate to govern, and on the eve of the 2002 national elections, the then prime minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, suggested that Papua New Guinea was ‘on the verge of collapse’. Not only does Papua New Guinea exhibit many of the signs of a weak state - notably limited capacity to deliver services and a poorly developed sense of national identity – its political institutions seem to be becoming increasingly vulnerable to non-democratic pressures, from long adjournments of parliament and increasingly disorderly national elections to persistent unrest within the defence force. In a region which has given rise to such terms as ‘guided democracy’ (Sukarno’s Indonesia), ‘elite democracy’ (Post-Marcos Philippines), and ‘disciplined democracy’ (Burma after Ne Win), Papua New Guinea might perhaps be described as a ‘disorderly democracy’. The question posed by recent trends is whether the disorderly nature of Papua New Guinea’s politics is simply a reflection of the ‘Melanesian Way’ of doing things, and consistent with the maintenance of a democratic political system, or whether there is a growing disorder which threatens the continued viability of the country’s democratic system. This paper examines the apparent disparity between the broad indications of successful democratic government and the widespread perceptions of governmental failure; reviews ongoing attempts to consolidate Papua New Guinea’s democratic institutions; and, in the light of the recently conducted national election, speculates on the prospects for democracy in the country which is commonly referred to by its own citizens as the ‘Land of the Unexpected’.
ISSN: 1328-7854


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