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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 154-165

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Turbulence and Reform in Papua New Guinea

R.J. May

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the few postcolonial states that has managed to maintain an unbroken record of democratic government since independence. Parliamentary elections have gone forward regularly and on schedule up to and including the most recent polling, which was held in June 2002, 27 years after PNG went peacefully from Australian colonial administration to sovereign statehood.

The 2002 elections were the sixth in the history of independent PNG. Although they were marred by serious irregularities, strife, and confusion, they eventually produced a coherent result: In August, Sir Michael Somare of the National Alliance (at 19 seats the largest single party in the 109-seat National Parliament) became prime minister at the head of an eight-party governing coalition.

During its short history, PNG has been no stranger to political turmoil: No government, for instance, has ever endured for the full term of its mandate. Yet every turnover of power has followed constitutional procedures, and all such handoffs (most of them triggered 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 some in the military, there has never been a coup or coup attempt. Freedom House ranks the country as "Free."

And yet: PNG exhibits many of the signs of a weak state—including limited capacity to deliver services and a poorly developed sense of national identity—and its political institutions seem to be growing [End Page 154] increasingly vulnerable to undemocratic pressures that range from long adjournments of Parliament and increasingly trouble-prone national elections to chronic military unrest. In a region known for political fauna such as "guided democracy" (Sukarno's Indonesia), "elite democracy" (the Philippines after Marcos), 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 disorder is simply a reflection of what Papuans themselves call 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.

Papua New Guinea's transition from Australian administration to sovereign statehood was achieved smoothly and with goodwill on both sides, though the comparative recency of localization and relatively low levels of education and administrative experience ensured that Australians and other foreigners continued to play an important role in both the public and private sectors in the early years of independence.

Prior to substantive European contact toward the end of the nineteenth century, Papua New Guinea was an isolated and highly fragmented region, torn by endemic warfare and home to more than 800 language groups. Even today, more than 85 percent of the five million people who inhabit this eastern half of New Guinea plus associated islands are rural folk who depend at least partly on subsistence farming. The independence constitution, which provided for a Westminster-style system with a unicameral National Parliament, was the handiwork of a Constitutional Planning Commission whose members all hailed from PNG. These framers looked primarily to African models but also appealed to a somewhat romanticized "Melanesian Way" that stressed egalitarianism and the importance of making decisions through consensus.

The number of seats in the National Parliament has stood at 109 since 1977. Of these, 89 represent geographically defined "open" electorates in single-member districts (SMDs). The other 20 seats represent "provincial" electorates coinciding with each of the 19 provinces plus the National Capital District of Port Moresby and environs. Every province save one contains between two and nine open electorates, which means that all voters can cast two votes: one to fill an open seat and one to fill a provincial seat.

At independence, it was widely expected that the adoption of first-past-the-post voting in SMDs would foster a two-party...