Welcome to Rigo, a PNG election story


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30 June 2017
Campaign poster for Ms. Iammo Gapi Launa, candidate for Rigo Open seat.
Campaign poster for Ms. Iammo Gapi Launa, candidate for Rigo Open seat.

On the eve of Papua New Guinea's national election, a source of hope within the candidate field of one rural district may not be enough to bring real change.

PNG begins polling next week after a typically exuberant campaign period.

In the rural village belt of Central province's Rigo Open, thirst for change is mixed with wariness about whether PNG can break the cycle of stagnation.

In some ways, the candidate field in Rigo Open is very typical for an electorate in PNG's 2017 election.

There's a lot of candidates, 39, and many of them, 22, are running as independents.

And as with candidates all over PNG, they're campaigning about how they seek to address failing basic services.

Which is exactly what is being sought each PNG election by voters like Brian in Rigo's Saroa village.

"We have... Water problems in our village. We have a health centre but we don't have medicine, we don't have a doctor in here," he explained.

Then there was the lack of jobs, and dilapidated roads and bridges.

As for education, while Saroa has a school, they need new classrooms and desks because the kids are still sitting on the floor.

"The school we have here was built by the Australian government in the 1950s," Brian recalled.

"It's the oldest school built by the Australian administration, and it's still the same until today."

Local people like Harai Naboru will tell you it has been the same in almost every election since PNG gained independence in 1975.

"I haven't seen any changes. It's all the same. You cannot see any changes," she said.

"Maybe in the city (Port Moresby, an hour's drive to the west) you see a new highway being built... There's no highway up here."

In this, the friendly villages of the valleys and flats of Rigo are typical of rural PNG. But in another sense Rigo is quite different to other parts.

It has the most women contesting a single electorate in the whole diverse country of almost 8 million people.

Rigo Open's field has seven women among a total of 39 candidates.

At around 20 percent of the field, that's far higher than the 5 percent of women in the total number of candidates in the national election, 3340. A former local teacher, Lyn Mairi said PNG needed a better balance of gender in the parliament, and that this would encourage more women to step into leadership roles.

"I think that if you also have a female in Central (province), I know that there will be some improvement coming up with these females, because most females are not comfortable going up to see their own parliament leaders on their own," she said.

"But I know if there's a female in office I'm sure there'll be lots and lots of women going in there to pour out their grievances, and I'm sure there'll be a great change."

Out here in the rolling hills of Rigo Open, it's not as if women are not already doing the real work at the grassroots level.

"We have to go looking for water, women have to carry the water as far as that end (or) that end, or they load up on vehicles to go collect water," said Harai Naboru.

Water tanks were too expensive for most villagers in Rigo, so the women were tasked with securing the supply

"Ladies go out looking for water, you see them carrying water in containers on their head. They are sustaining for the men at the same time."

But the hopes for a new female leadership are dampened by a general wariness about the chances of a fair and secure election. Independent Rigo candidate Laros Gavarananu said he had concerns about election preparation and the security around polling.

"There's concern about the ballot boxes, and about ballot papers being printed overseas," he explained, citing growing concerns about surplus ballot papers apparently in circulation outside the Electoral Commission's hands.

Despite a big increase in the number of ballot papers printed, there has been a decrease in the number of names on the common roll.

"Not too sure how that translates being that the population's meant to increase, not decrease," said Mr Gavarananu.

"There's not much visibility in the security forces here," he added.

That said, the police were manning a checkpoint at Kwikila and were approachable.

Chatting, they could only sigh about the fact that they were long overdue allowances for basic needs like food and fuel.

It's a common story around PNG.

While not universally popular, Rigo's incumbent MP, Ano Pala, is somehow still expected to be announced winner.

Mr Pala is the Justice Minister and from the ruling people's National Congress Party of Prime minister Peter O'Neill. Another local independent candidate, Julienne Leka, felt that problems around electoral processes remained an obstacle to the change people want.

The lack of voter awareness was also an obstacle, she said, citing the need to vote for reasons other than short term material gain during the frenzy of the campaign season.

Yet Ms Leka said even if she doesn't win Rigo Open, the many discussions she'd had with constituents, can help the electorate.

She insisted people desperately wanted change, because the fundamentals of a functioning society were missing.

"Throughout my campaign over the last six weeks what I've found out are some real stories of how a mother is being rushed to a health centre to deliver her baby and on the way she dies.

"And then there's parents trying to bring their sick child down to hospital in Kwikila town, which is our headquarters. On the way, the child dies," said Ms Leka.

"These are real stories, and you imagine what else goes on, just to seek the basic attention, because it's dysfunctional at the community level and at the village level."

Across PNG, it's expected that of those independents who win election after the coming polls many will be absorbed quickly into the biggest parties in the rush to form the next coalition government.

It's up to them to make the most of their time in parliament - for the needs of their people, like the villagers in Rigo, or themselves.

The turnover rate of MPs in PNG elections is traditionally high, suggesting the performance so far has been dire.

[Source: Radio New Zealand, 23 June 2017]

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