In Bougainville, the political climax of 2019 came late in the year. On 11 December, Bertie Ahern, chairperson of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (and former prime minister of Ireland) announced the result of the referendum on the future political status of Bougainville: almost 98 percent of Bougainvilleans had voted for independence, with just two percent voting for greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea (PNG). Given an extremely high voter turnout of 87.4 percent, this result was an unmistakably clear expression of the political will of the Bougainville people.
Bougainvilleans cast their votes in the referendum from 23 November to 7 December. Out of 206,731 enrolled voters, 181,067 actually voted, with 176,928 opting for independence and a mere 3,043 opting for greater autonomy (with 1,096 invalid ballots) (brc 2019d; New Dawn 2019d). The Bougainville Referendum Commission (brc) and international, national, and local observers reported that the conduct of the referendum was free and fair, transparent, and peaceful. In comparison with other elections in Papua New Guinea or in the region (or, for that matter, in large parts of the world), the preparation and the conduct of the referendum was an outstanding success. The groundwork for that success had been laid in the previous months of 2019, when all stakeholders involved in the process—the governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, the United Nations, international advisors, the members of the Bougainville House of Representatives, local-level governing bodies, nongovernmental and civil society organizations, the brc, and, most importantly, the Bougainville people—had come together to make Bougainville “referendum ready.”
Getting there had not been easy. The date of the referendum had to be postponed twice. When it became clear early in the year that the original target date of 15 June was too ambitious, on 1 March the government of PNG (GoPNG) and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), in a session of their Joint Supervisory Body (the institution in charge of the implementation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement [bpa] of August 2001), decided to set the actual date of the referendum for 12 October 2019 (Bougainville News 2019). Even this date, however, proved to be problematic. The brc asked for a further postponement because of delays in putting together the referendum roll. On 2 August 2019, the ABG and the GoPNG therefore changed the referendum date to 23 November 2019, and the brc assured the two governments that the late November date would be kept (brc 2019a; brc 2019c).
Bougainvilleans were not happy about these delays, but they once more demonstrated calm and patience—as they had during the entire peace process, which began in the late 1990s and stretched for more than two decades. They were prepared to wait a few more weeks to finally have [End Page 545] their say on Bougainville’s political future, as laid down in the bpa, which stipulates their right to a referendum on the region’s future political status. According to the bpa, that referendum had to include as one option complete independence for Bougainville, and it had to be held ten to fifteen years after the establishment of an autonomous government for Bougainville. As the ABG took office in June 2005, the window for conducting the referendum was from June 2015 to June 2020.
Delays in preparation of the referendum roll were mainly due to financial problems. The GoPNG in particular was slow in releasing the funds for referendum preparations, and this considerably hampered the brc’s work. The brc only became operational in March 2019; its chief referendum officer was only appointed at the end of February, and staff for the brc’s Bougainville office could only be recruited after that (ABG 2019c). As in the previous years, the United Nations (UN) to a certain extent stepped in to fill the gaps via its UN Peacebuilding Fund and its Bougainville Referendum Support Project, and individual states, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, also gave additional financial support (Regan 2019, 127). The brc in the end managed to prepare a referendum roll that was of markedly better quality than election rolls in PNG in general. This was mainly due to the...