Papua New Guinea’s complex and often chaotic election process has concluded with Prime Minister James Marape retaining power. Many were however unable to vote: up to a million voters – a huge part of the nine million population – were excluded due to failures to update the electoral roll. The ensuing frustration contributed to violence that left at least 50 people dead. Restoring trust in electoral institutions is therefore one of several challenges Marape will face. One of the main upsides of the process is the rare election of two women to parliament: law-making will no longer be an all-male affair in Papua New Guinea.

There are few elections like those in Papua New Guinea. Oceania’s second largest and second most populated country – after regional giant Australia – is home to some 850 languages. Its population, estimated at almost nine million, is overwhelmingly rural, with many living in remote and hard-to-access villages scattered across over 600 islands.

This makes an election an immense logistical exercise. Nonetheless, the country has held one every five years since 1977, shortly after it gained independence. In its latest, voting took place from 4 to 22 July, and vote counting continues still. The new parliament sat for the first time on 9 August, even though 14 of its 118 seats are yet to declare.

Volatility and fragmentation

Fragmented and fractious politics are the norm in Papua New Guinea. Only two prime ministers have served a full term. Many parties compete in elections and many gain seats; none has ever won an outright majority. Elections are commonly followed by the convening of post-election camps in which the biggest parties try to build coalitions with an array of smaller parties and independent members of parliament. On the current count, of around 50 parties that stood, 23 will be represented in parliament, many by just one person, along with several people with no affiliation.

Party allegiances are flexible and defections are common: current Prime Minister James Marape has represented four different parties. He became prime minister in 2019 after quitting the government and leading a challenge that forced out his predecessor, Peter O’Neill. Marape then survived an attempt to oust him the following year by securing opposition defections. Marape and O’Neill went head-to-head as leaders of the two biggest parties in the 2022 election.

Marape emerged the winner. His current party, Pangu, is the largest, with 36 seats so far, far ahead of O’Neill’s People’s National Congress Party, which has 14. When parliament met, all 97 members present supported Marape’s nomination to lead a coalition government. O’Neill’s injunction to prevent parliament sitting until all seats had been declared was rejected.

Marape will lead a 17-party coalition said to have the support of over 80 members of parliament. The rules prevent any confidence vote being brought in the first 18 months, bringing a measure of temporary stability.

While Papua New Guinea’s highly fragmented politics will continue, there’s a least a tiny sliver of novelty in the new parliament. The parliament elected in 2017 made headlines for being filled entirely with men, one of just a handful in the world, and by far the biggest.

Women face tremendous barriers against political participation: a patriarchal political culture, the deterrent effect of violence against women, the role of personal wealth in politics and electoral corruption all stand in their way. There have been only seven women members of parliament since independence. In 2022 there were just 167 women candidates, compared to 3,458 men.

But this time, against these immense odds, two have prevailed: Rufina Peter and Kessy Sawang now take on the challenge of making their voices heard and opening the door for others to follow.

The missing million

It was hardly the kind of election to build bridges. Voting was dogged by controversy. An outdated electoral roll meant many were excluded from the most basic democratic right of casting their vote. Around a million names were said to be missing from the roll. Thousands were turned away from polling stations. Chronic underfunding of the electoral commission was blamed, with people pointing the finger at both the Marape and O’Neill administrations.

The lack of investment in the services required to run an efficient election points to a bigger problem of poor public services, over which there is widespread dissatisfaction.

Violence, sadly a common feature of elections as tensions between different communities surface, predictably broke out. Around 10,000 security personnel were deployed around the country, including a contingent from Australia, Papua New Guinea’s former colonial power and key trading partner.

Violence flared, not least out of frustration at not being able to vote, which led to attacks on officials. On 15 July, a young woman, Annaisha Max, was reportedly shot dead by police while queuing at a polling station in the capital, Port Moresby. The police were said to have used live ammunition when people got angry at delays caused by the absence of ballot boxes.

Around 50 election-related deaths were reported – fewer than the 200-plus deaths associated with the 2017 election. The worst event saw at least 18 people massacred in Enga Province. In another disturbing incident, supporters of two rival candidates attacked each other with knives in Port Moresby.

The candidates hardly rose above the fray: one was arrested and charged with murder during the campaign, while a second received a murder charge before it began.

Insecurity and the danger of violence undoubtedly made voting harder in some places. There were reports of candidates effectively taking over polling stations and of ballot stuffing, ballot box theft, attacks on counting centres, bribery and coercion.

Many votes are still cast on an essentially transactional basis, with voters seeking to support candidates promising immediate material advantages for their communities – and sometimes individual benefits such as money for votes. It hardly built confidence when one of Marape’s sons was found travelling with a suitcase full of cash just before voting began.

Big challenges ahead

Major issues remain to be tackled. The lack of investment in the services required to run an efficient election points to a bigger problem of poor public services, over which there is widespread dissatisfaction. Another hint of the size of the challenge is the very low COVID-19 vaccination rate, with a little over three per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

When Marape came to power he promised to make Papua New Guinea the ‘richest Black Christian nation’ on earth. This was based on a plan to secure a bigger share of the country’s natural resource wealth – much of which goes to foreign companies – and improve public services. But the economy remains hard-hit by the pandemic, and O’Neill’s campaign focused on the lack of improvement under Marape.

As Marape looks to fulfil his promise of making more from natural resource extraction, he may be tempted by the idea of expanding connections with China.

China’s foreign minister visited the country during the campaign as part of a whirlwind tour of eight Pacific Island nations. China is keen to tie Oceania’s countries into economic and security cooperation deals. It is seeking a regional agreement and has also recently signed bilateral deals with countries including Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Tonga.

No such agreement has been made yet in Papua New Guinea, where China offered to supply police equipment for the election; the opposition criticised the timing of the move. Eyes will now be on Marape to see how he balances between relations with Australia and China.

His focus on natural resource wealth also highlights the need to improve the conditions for environmental and land rights defenders, who often encounter threats and harassment. Papua New Guinea lacks a national human rights institution. April 2022 saw a consultation on developing a Human Rights Defenders’ Protection Bill, indicating an obvious opportunity for the government to make early progress.

The run-up to the election also saw rising concern about political interference in the media. In February, the head of news and current affairs at TV station EMTV was suspended after running a report critical of the police and the criminal justice system. Nineteen journalists were then suspended for taking part in a walkout protest. EMTV is one of the country’s few media platforms offering investigative journalism. Civil society will be looking for stronger media freedom commitments from the new administration.

Marape also needs to make good on a pledge to fully update the electoral roll and should properly fund the electoral commission, so no one is excluded from casting their vote ever again. After a less than satisfactory election, the need now is to repair trust in electoral processes and make violence less likely next time.


  • The government should urgently put in place an independent national human rights institution and enact a law to protect human rights defenders.
  • The government should commit to funding the electoral commission properly and fully update the electoral roll in time for the next election.
  • Papua New Guinea’s civil society should work together to develop common advocacy agendas, including on public services, environmental management and women’s representation.

Cover photo by Peter Foley via Getty Images