Elections in Papua New Guinea are just different

Two-week-long voting period begins in polls seen as a watershed moment after months of political impasse.

The whole country doesn’t vote at once.  Elections take place over two weeks: one area voting the day after another. 

The paraphernalia of the election – ballot boxes, voting slips, police and security officers – moves around the country like a series of travelling circuses of democracy. 

Parties don’t really exist in the way that they’re understood elsewhere either.   

They’re brands rather than platforms.  Characters count more than policies.

All of which leaves the question of who might become Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) next prime minister very much in the air. 

It could be one of the two men already claiming to have the top job: Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill have been tussling over who is the rightful prime minister since last year. 

It may that another winning candidate emerges altogether.

Whoever ends up in the top job has big tasks ahead: on just about every social indicator, PNG ranks low.  In fact, appallingly low given the potential of the country and its recent history – on paper –  of economic growth.

Mining natural resources has brought billions of dollars into the state coffers.  And yet little has filtered down to schools, hospitals or infrastructure projects. 

Political campaigning in PNG takes place by air – not because it’s glamorous, but because that’s the only way between the big towns.  The rugged country has precious few roads.

The biggest financial boon of all – in fact – is right around the corner.  A massive Liquefied Natural Gas Project is due to come on stream in 2014.  It should bring $16bn into the country. 

How that money is managed will be critical to PNG’s future. 

So who is in power to manage it – who wins this election – matters more than ever. 

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