Bougainville, mercenaries swung PNG elections


By Norm Dixon

Disgust at Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan's plan to use South African mercenaries to crush the people of Bougainville led to his heavy defeat in the general election, held between June 14 and 28. PNG's 2.3 million voters also sent a clear message to the political elite that they are fed up with corruption and rampant self-serving.

At the return of writs on July 15, the extent of Chan's rejection became clear. Fifty-four MPs, out of 109, lost their seats. Those directly involved in the plan to employ the Sandline International/Executive Outcomes mercenaries lost heavily.

Chan lost his New Ireland seat, which he had held since independence in 1975 and through two terms as prime minister.

Defence minister Mathias Ijape lost his seat, as did mining minister John Giheno, who was acting PM while Chan awaited the results of the inquiry into the mercenary scandal.

Ben Micah, who had attempted to push through repressive new media laws, was also defeated.

A new layer were elected who are not part of the elite or the regional "big men" who have traditionally dominated elections. Many new MPs were associated with grassroots organisations, the campaign against the mercenaries and other campaigns such as the agitation against the IMF/World Bank/Australian government-supported structural adjustment program.

The biggest bloc, 37 seats, was won by independents. Most of the 20 registered political parties have, to one degree or another, been tainted by corruption.

Former prime minister Paias Wingti, who had held his Western Highlands seat for 20 years, was defeated by social justice activist and priest Father Robert Lak. Giheno lost to a village farmer. Two women were elected — the first in 15 years.

Six MPs formed a group called the Resource Owners Bloc to insist that wealth from PNG's huge mineral projects benefit the people.

Melsol success

The most galling result for Chan and his cronies must have been the landslide win by Peti Lafanama in the Eastern Highlands regional seat.

Lafanama, general secretary of the radical activist group Melanesian Solidarity (Melsol), was one of the leaders of the huge Port Moresby protests against the mercenaries in March, which helped scuttled the deadly plan. He won an absolute majority in the seat and will also become the governor of Eastern Highlands province.

After the large protests, the government targeted activist NGOs and Melsol in particular. On May 5 and 6, heavily armed police raided NGO offices and charged Melsol executive members John Kawowo and John Napo, and PNG Watch general secretary Jonathan O'ata, with unlawful assembly.

On May 12, the director of the Individual and Community Rights and Advocacy Forum (ICRAF), Powes Parkop, was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly. O'ata and Parkop are also leading members of Melsol.

On May 25, Chan attacked Melsol and the ICRAF as "dangerously provocative" groups "hell-bent on direct confrontation" that would lead to "mob rule and anarchy".

"Melsol especially is in the business of spreading poison ... It is not just my government they are attempting to bring down. They are attacking the very form of government itself that PNG works under", Chan ranted.

The mercenary affair and the war on Bougainville dominated the campaign. Chan, who had stood down pending an official inquiry into the hiring of the mercenaries, resumed office just two weeks before the election after the inquiry, which Chan had given extremely narrow terms of reference, found no direct evidence of impropriety.

Immediately, Chan declared that he might rehire the mercenaries. He also signalled that he had not abandoned his goal of a military solution on Bougainville by promoting and reappointing Leo Nuia as commander of the Defence Force.

Nuia, dubbed the "butcher of Bougainville", was sacked in 1991 when he admitted on Australian television that troops under his command executed civilians and dumped them into the sea from an Australian-donated Iroquois helicopter.

These actions appear to have sealed Chan's fate.

Return of Somare?

Sir Michael Somare, PNG's first PM (and strongly backed by the mass media and the Australian government), consistently opposed Chan's mercenary adventure. He won his seat easily, and his National Alliance party boosted its representation from 10 to 17.

Two rival coalitions are vying for government. One is the former government coalition, which comprises the Pangu Party (led by former deputy PM Chris Haiveta) and Chan's People's Progress Party. The other is Somare's National Alliance and the People's National Congress (led by National Capital District governor Bill Skate).

The 37 independents will decide who becomes the new government.

Somare on July 14 reached out to the radical independent MPs led by Father Lak and Lafanama, and to the Resource Owners Bloc.

He promised that the National Alliance would support the end of user pays health and education; repeal the repressive Internal Security Act; abandon the previous government's attempt to muzzle the press; "regain the trust of the people of Bougainville by working together with them and their leaders to restore peace and normalcy"; abandon the IMF and World Bank-sponsored Land Registration Bill (which amounts to the privatisation of communal land); and establish an anti-corruption commission.

On July 16, Lak and Lafanama's 10-member Melanesian Solidarity Group agreed to participate in the NA/PNC group but said they would back Skate rather than Somare as its candidate for prime minister.

"We have been elected for a change, and we will not go against the people's will by joining the same political parties that have caused the mess in this country", Lafanama explained. "The old leaders caused the problems."