Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a democracy in which elections are held regularly, but the polls have often been marred by irregularities and violence. Party allegiances are unstable, and only two governments have survived for a full term since independence in 1975. Since the turn of the century, a boom in mineral resources extraction has helped successive incumbent governments to consolidate control. The judiciary retains significant independence, and the media are mostly free to criticize the government. Corruption remains a serious problem.
- In July, the Supreme Court quashed stays on the execution of prisoners facing the death penalty, raising the possibility that executions would be carried out for the first time in decades. In September, however, the government formed a Power of Mercy Committee to hear commutation requests.
- In October, former prime minister Peter O’Neill was acquitted of the charge of abuse of power; the case stemmed from an investigation into irregularities or corruption surrounding the 2013 purchase of generators from Israel.
- Also in October, the Australian government decided to end an agreement under which PNG had accepted asylum seekers aiming to reach Australia. The PNG government agreed to offer measures including citizenship and family reunification for any remaining asylum seekers who wished to reside in the country.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The governor general represents the British monarch as head of state and formally appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government, following an election process in Parliament. A law provides that the largest political party emerging from general elections has the first right to nominate a prime minister. Peter O’Neill of the People’s National Congress (PNC) received a second term as prime minister after the 2017 elections. He resigned in May 2019 after internal party upheaval. Parliament selected former finance minister James Marape to replace O’Neill; a legal challenge against Marape’s succession to the post was rejected by the Supreme Court in November 2020.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||2.002 4.004|
Members of the unicameral, 111-member National Parliament are directly elected for five-year terms. A limited preferential voting system requires voters to choose three preferred candidates on their ballots.
Serious flaws, including bribery and voter fraud, were reported in the 2017 elections. Some areas, notably the Highlands Region, experienced election-related violence that resulted in dozens of deaths, as well as severe property damage. Due to irregularities, election results in Southern Highlands Province were released several months late and sparked renewed violence in the town of Mendi once made public. While the electoral process was smoother in coastal areas, those regions were not completely free from irregularities and violence. Allegations of voter roll manipulation that favored the incumbent government were widespread, though most clear abuses were localized in the Highlands. Election observers expressed disappointment that recommendations to clean up voter rolls were disregarded.
Parliamentary seats were ultimately divided among numerous parties. The PNC won 25, the National Alliance Party won 15, independents won 12, and the Papua and Niugini Union Party (Pangu) won 10. Lawmakers defected to Pangu in subsequent years; by April 2021, the party claimed the loyalties of 34 members.
In April 2021, Don Polye, who lost his seat in the 2017 polls, returned to Parliament after a court-ordered recount found that he outpolled the PNC candidate.
A by-election was held in Moresby North West in June 2021 to determine a successor for former prime minister Mekere Morauta, who died while holding the seat in February. The contest was marred by voter roll difficulties; registered voters discovered that other individuals had cast ballots using their names, while deceased individuals remained registered. A Pangu candidate won the seat.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
The electoral law, which requires voters to rank three candidates on a preferential ballot, is fair but complex to administer. The voter rolls are poorly maintained. Prime Minister Marape vowed that the 2021 census would be used to update the voter rolls. However, in July the National Statistical Office confirmed that the census would be deferred to 2024, blaming COVID-19.
At the local level, election management bodies are chronically lacking in independence, particularly in the Highlands. Irregularities do not necessarily benefit incumbents, more than half of whom usually lose their seats in elections.
Electoral officials have faced allegations of corruption in recent years. A trial against former electoral commissioner Patilias Gamato and election manager Terence Hetinu on charges related to their conduct during the 2017 elections began in September 2021. In November, Hetinu was convicted of corruption for receiving a bribe from a candidate. Gamato was acquitted.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties are able to form and operate freely, but many candidates run as independents and join factions only after reaching Parliament. Electoral loyalties are driven by local and personal factors at the constituency level. Lawmakers frequently switch affiliations and alliances. A law constraining freedom of movement between parties was ruled unconstitutional in 2010.
Prime Minister Marape has transformed Pangu, the country’s oldest party, into his vehicle for reelection in 2022. A large number of lawmakers have defected from their former parties to join Pangu since 2019, making it the largest parliamentary group.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The opposition has a reasonable chance of dislodging the government through elections, defections, or no-confidence votes. Since independence in 1975, only two governments have served a full five-year term: the Michael Somare–led government (2002–07) and the O’Neill-led government (2012–17). At the same time, the law granting the largest party the first opportunity to form a government creates an electoral advantage for sitting prime ministers, and no-confidence votes have been used by PNG politicians to seek incumbency ahead of elections. Incumbent governments have won all three elections since 2007.
The frequency of no-confidence votes has been diminished somewhat by a provision that grants an incoming prime minister an 18-month “grace period.” However, they remain regular occurrences. While Marape’s first grace period expired in November 2020, he was vulnerable for eight months before another 12-month grace period began ahead of the 2022 elections. An effort to dislodge him via a no-confidence vote collapsed in December 2020, and he avoided another vote in April 2021 when Parliament was adjourned, ostensibly due to COVID-19.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
Most citizens and candidates are generally free to make political choices without undue interference. However, some local leaders, politicians, and candidate agents control the balloting process, particularly in the Highlands, and complete the ballot papers in bulk—a form of “assisted voting.” As a result, the affected citizens are effectively denied the right to vote.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Although all citizens have equal political rights under the law, women are underrepresented in elected offices. The 2017 elections featured the highest number of women candidates ever, but none won legislative seats, and there are currently no women in the 111-seat Parliament. In April 2021, Attorney General Eric Kwa voiced his support for a proposal to reserve five seats for women. However, the government did not legislate to effect this change during the year.
LGBT+ people face societal discrimination that impedes their ability to advocate for their interests in the political sphere.
A 2001 peace agreement ended a civil war in Bougainville and provided for an independence referendum in the ethnically diverse autonomous region. Over 180,000 people participated in a nonbinding referendum in 2019, and 97.7 percent voted for independence. In a July 2021 statement, Marape and Bougainville president Ishmael Toroama agreed to finalize a political settlement “no earlier than 2025 and no later than 2027.” Marape has stated that the agreement would ultimately require the approval of Parliament.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
The prime minister heads the government, but cabinet ministers often exert considerable control over their portfolios without necessarily being answerable to the cabinet. Prime ministers frequently suspend Parliament during periods of vulnerability to no-confidence votes; speakers of Parliament wield significant power while the body is suspended, and suspensions can be lengthy.
There are no powerful external forces that determine the policies of government, though logging and mining companies have been known to obtain influence. The government has only a limited ability to implement its policies across the country, as the state’s presence in more remote areas is minimal.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||0.000 4.004|
Corruption is pervasive and remains the most important hindrance to development. Anticorruption institutions have been subject to political interference. Task Force Sweep was established in 2011 to root out corruption, and it carried out a variety of investigations against politicians, civil servants, and businessmen. However, when the unit turned its attention to fraudulent payments made to Port Moresby law firm Paraka Lawyers and allegedly authorized by then prime minister O’Neill, he disbanded the task force; when courts ordered its resurrection, the government cut its funding.
O’Neill was arrested in May 2020 in connection with an investigation into procedural irregularities and possible corruption in the purchase of generators from Israel in 2013. He was acquitted of abuse of power in October 2021.
In November 2020, Parliament passed legislation to establish an Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC). In February 2021, ICAC interim chairman Thomas Eluh warned that the body did not yet have the capacity or resources to address corruption cases. A National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate exists within the police force but is also underresourced.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||1.001 4.004|
Government operations are generally opaque, and the government does not frequently release reliable information about public expenditures, procurement processes, or officials’ assets. PNG does not have an access to information law. When government figures are released, especially regarding public revenue and expenditure, they are often inaccurate and are sometimes manipulated.
In 2014, the PNG government used a A$1.2 billion (US$810.5 million) loan to purchase a share in the oil exploration firm Oil Search, which it later sold at a loss. Hearings into the deal began in 2019. In June 2021, a commission of inquiry heard that the loan, which was provided by Swiss bank UBS, was made despite warnings from within the cabinet. The commission additionally heard that the deal was only submitted to Parliament after it was put in place. The inquiry was ongoing as 2021 ended.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of the press is generally respected. Local media provide independent coverage of the political opposition, as well as controversial issues such as alleged police abuse and official corruption. However, politicians have been known to harass media professionals over negative stories, and journalists can face physical attacks in the course of their work.
There have been fewer incidents of censorship of journalists during the Marape government compared with the frequent violations of the O’Neill era. However, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted in its 2021 report that journalists have been prevented from investigating Australian-operated detention centers for asylum seekers in PNG.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Religious freedom is generally upheld. There have been reports of larger churches criticizing newer and smaller groups, and of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has accompanied the arrival of Muslim refugees, but no major infringements on religious liberty have been alleged in recent years.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected, though the police have at times violently suppressed student demonstrations on campus.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are no major constraints on the expression of personal views. However, a 2016 cybercrime law allows the prosecution of people who publish defamatory material or incite violence on social media, raising concerns that it could be misused to punish legitimate speech.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly. However, marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval, and authorities sometimes deny permits.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country, including groups focused on human rights and environmental causes, as well as some that provide social services. Most are small and lack resources, but they are otherwise free of serious constraints on their activities.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining are largely respected. However, the government has frequently imposed arbitration in labor disputes to avert strikes, and protections against antiunion discrimination are unevenly enforced. Most workers are employed in the informal sector and lack access to union protections.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
While successive governments have exerted political pressure on the court system, the judiciary is generally independent. Judges are appointed by the largely apolitical Judicial and Legal Services Commission and cannot be removed arbitrarily. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under customary and statutory law. In recent years, the higher courts have repeatedly demonstrated their impartiality by ruling against the government and its political interests.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
Constitutional guarantees of due process are poorly upheld. Arbitrary detention is relatively common, and opportunities to challenge such abuses are limited in practice. A shortage of trained judicial personnel is a key cause of lengthy detentions and trial delays. The police force is chronically underfunded. In 2020, then police commissioner Bryan Kramer alleged that officers are involved in criminality, including drug and firearms trafficking and land theft.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||1.001 4.004|
Law enforcement officials are frequently implicated in acts of brutality. Prison conditions are poor, and the correctional service is understaffed. Prison breaks are common. Lack of economic opportunities exacerbates social unrest, frequently resulting in violent clashes, injuries, and deaths. An Australian police assistance program exists to help provide security, but its officers lack powers of arrest and are restricted by a 2005 court ruling that removed immunities from prosecution under local law.
Tribal violence and “payback” attacks are common in the Highlands Region. In April 2021, at least 19 people were killed in fighting in the Eastern Highlands.
Capital punishment was most recently reintroduced in 1991, though no executions have been carried out since 1954. In July 2021, the Supreme Court quashed stays on the execution of individuals who had received death sentences. In September, however, the government formed a Power of Mercy Committee to hear the commutation requests of those sentenced to death.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees equality regardless of race, tribe, religion, sex, and other categories, but various forms of discrimination are common in practice. Same-sex sexual relations are a criminal offense that can draw up to 14 years in prison, though the relevant laws are rarely enforced. There is some discrimination against people of Chinese origin; a growing Chinese business presence in the country has drawn resentment for allegedly disadvantaging other groups. Women face legal discrimination in employment in addition to societal biases. Allegations of sorcery have been used to target women for violence.
Australia long paid the PNG government to accept asylum seekers who arrived in Australian waters by boat, but as the program wound down in recent years, those who were not granted refugee status or did not agree to settle in PNG were left in limbo. While the Australian government remained reluctant to allow refugees to enter Australia, some have been sent to the United States as part of a deal between Canberra and Washington.
In 2016, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled that the Manus Island detention center, where Australia held asylum seekers as part of its partnership with PNG, was unconstitutional, and the facility officially closed in 2017. Many residents spent several years at the site amid reports of poor living conditions, violence, and mental health problems. In 2019, those remaining on Manus were moved to Port Moresby and held under especially poor conditions at the Bomana Immigration Detention Centre. Some eventually agreed to return to their country of origin, though 100 people reportedly remained in Port Moresby as of 2021.
In October 2021, the Australian government agreed to end its regional processing contract with PNG effective December 31, while the PNG government agreed to offer measures including citizenship and family reunification for any remaining asylum seekers who wished to reside in the country.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of movement is somewhat restricted in the Highlands; survivors of tribal violence are known to limit their domestic travel or go into hiding in the immediate aftermath of skirmishes and attacks. Travelers in Port Moresby are subject to roadblocks, where authorities check the registration of their vehicles. Movement was also restricted for refugees and asylum seekers who resided on Manus Island and in Port Moresby.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
In PNG, 97 percent of the land area is theoretically under customary tenure, but Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) have been used to facilitate land grabs by unscrupulous investors. In 2013, a government commission found that most active SABLs were illegal and recommended their cancellation. In 2017, then prime minister O’Neill claimed that all SABLs were canceled, but the lands and physical planning minister acknowledged in 2018 that most were still being contested in court. Many of the leases remained in place in 2021, with local activists warning that large-scale logging was ongoing on land covered by the scheme.
Women face disadvantages regarding property rights and inheritance, particularly under customary law.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
The law provides some protections for individual rights on personal status matters like marriage and divorce, but early or forced marriage remains a problem, and legislation meant to combat widespread family violence and aid victims is poorly enforced. Abortion is illegal except when necessary to save the life of the child bearer.
About two-thirds of partnered women have experienced physical abuse, according to multiple studies. In one high-profile case in September 2021, three men suspected of murdering a woman were released from custody for lack of evidence; the woman’s husband, who was one of the defendants, had reportedly confessed to the killing, and the woman’s body was found in his car.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions are weakly enforced, and frequent abuses in sectors including logging and mining have been reported. The US Labor Department has previously assembled evidence of child labor in the coffee, cocoa, palm oil, and rubber sectors, as well as in commercial sexual exploitation.
According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021, no antitrafficking investigations or prosecutions took place in PNG during the reporting period. The State Department also noted that corrupt officials were facilitating sex trafficking as well as forced labor.
On Papua New Guinea
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Global Freedom Score62 100 partly free