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New dawn over Bougainville

4 August 2015

The success of the recent Bougainville election was largely due to community goodwill towards the electoral process. But amendments to the electoral roll must be a top priority, writes KERRYN BAKER and THIAGO CINTRA OPPERMANN

Bougainville went to the polls in May 2015 for the third Autonomous Bougainville Government election since the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in 2001.

The election was a significant political milestone for the region, marking the beginning of a five-year window in which a referendum on independence is scheduled to be held. It also saw the first woman member of the House of Representatives to be elected in an open seat, Josephine Getsi of Peit constituency.

Elections were held for the seats in the House of Representatives and for the presidency of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. In the house there are 33 open seats, three seats reserved for women, and three seats reserved for ex-combatants. Each voter has four ballots: for the presidency, for their constituency, and for their regional women’s and ex-combatant representatives. The election used a system of limited preferential voting, in which voters rank their top three preferred candidates on each ballot.

Bougainville presents significant logistical challenges when it comes to election administration. While there were some considerable issues, overall the election was relatively peaceful. For the most part, the result was accepted by the Bougainvillean people. Despite delays, both polling and counting were completed within their respective designated two-week periods. The success of the election was due in large part to the community goodwill towards the electoral process within Bougainville.

Campaigning kicked off with nominations on 30 March, which included colourful motorcades and some of the largest rallies seen in the campaign. A total of 342 candidates nominated, including 35 women. Only 12 of these women were contesting open seats; the remainder competed for the three seats reserved for women. Nine men, and no women, contested the presidency.

Campaigning was mostly peaceful. The presidential race was dominated by the issues of the referendum, good governance and economic development, with mining also significant in certain regions. None of the presidential candidates campaigned for autonomy. Candidates differed as to how forcefully they proposed independence from Papua New Guinea but all argued in its favour. The referendum was thus discussed mostly in terms of candidates representing themselves as the best option to achieve a successful referendum.

In Bougainville, ‘good governance’ has acquired the character of a piety that nobody disowns, but its practice is another matter. Candidates defending their seats faced barrages of (credible and not-so-credible) accusations of corruption. Often the absence of visible delivery of services by a politician was construed as evidence of corruption in itself; yet the delivery of some services was also labelled corrupt by some. According to one such critic, ‘the work of a politician is to pass laws and set policy, not to give schools’ – yet even this critic went on to complain that his approach to a politician for funds had been rebuffed.

The expectation that politicians will personally deliver services, resentment at preferential gifting, and pervasive, politicised rumour of corruption are all facets of an underlying political economy of distribution and its discontents. This is deeply enmeshed at all levels of Bougainvillean society, from the state to the household. It is extremely difficult for politicians and voters to extricate themselves from expectations and obligations to present and receive ‘gifts.’

The pervasiveness of this politics of distribution poses a particular challenge to women. The political economy of gifting is fundamentally gendered and favours men, while women are expected and encouraged to be ‘clean’ candidates. This emphasis on women’s ‘purity’ means that harsh judgement falls on women who act in ways that would be tolerated or even welcomed in the case of men. While some women — including Josephine Getsi and a few others who placed highly — performed exceptionally well, most of the women who contested races against men polled last or second-to-last.

One major issue arising from the election was the quality of the electoral roll. Issues with the roll have also been noted in past elections. But as Bougainville looks toward a referendum by 2020, the extent of these problems in 2015 was of particular concern. Many people were turned away from polling stations because their names did not appear on the final roll, including many who claimed to have voted in previous elections. In all regions, many appeared to have been disenfranchised; at some polling stations, observations showed up to three in ten people being turned away.

Discontent over the electoral roll among the general public was often expressed in terms of national identity. One community leader stated: ‘If your name is not on the roll, this means you are not Bougainvillean’. This suggests the issue with the roll constitutes much more than a technical problem. In the lead-up to the referendum on independence, amending the electoral roll must be a priority. Unless significant effort is put towards not only improving the quality of the electoral roll but also affirming public faith in its integrity, there could be serious repercussions for the referendum process.

Kerryn Baker and Thiago Cintra Oppermann are research fellows in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

This article was first published by East Asia Forum

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