Papua New Guinea 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. However, 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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- A nine-month state of emergency was declared in the Southern Highlands in June after an election-related court decision prompted riots.
- In August, police dropped their investigations into two corruption scandals that had implicated the prime minister and other senior officials.
- In October, the central government and the government of Bougainville agreed on the wording of a referendum set for 2019 that would allow voters on the island to choose between greater autonomy and independence.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 23 / 40 (−2)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 7 / 12 (−1)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
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 a general election has the first right to nominate a prime minister. While the prime minister’s legitimacy is partly rooted in the conduct of the legislative elections, the election of the prime minister by members of Parliament (MPs) is a highly competitive process. Following the victory of the People’s National Congress Party (PNC) in the 2017 elections, Peter O’Neill was reelected as prime minister in a parliamentary vote of 60 to 46.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4
Voters elect members of the unicameral, 111-member National Parliament for five-year terms. A limited preferential voting system allows voters to choose up to 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 the Southern Highlands were released several months late and sparked renewed violence in the town of Mendi once made public. The electoral process was smoother in coastal areas, but even those regions were not completely free from irregularities and violence. Allegations of deliberate manipulation of voter rolls to favor the incumbent government were widespread, but most clear abuses were localized in the Highlands. Election observers expressed disappointment that past recommendations to clean up voter rolls had been disregarded.
The Parliament seats were ultimately divided among numerous small parties, with the PNC taking nearly a quarter of the total and the National Alliance placing a distant second. Independents made up the third-largest group.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4 (−1)
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. At the local level, election management bodies are chronically lacking in independence, particularly in all parts of the Highlands. Irregularities do not necessarily benefit incumbents, more than half of whom usually lose their seats at elections. A 2018 Australian National University analysis found considerable evidence of local-level fraud and malpractice by electoral management bodies. Separately, in November, Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to follow court orders to hold local government by-elections in six Highlands provinces.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to emerging evidence of blatant bias by local-level election management bodies at the 2017 polls and the conviction of the country’s electoral commissioner for failing to hold local by-elections as ordered by the courts.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 13 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
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. MPs frequently switch affiliations and alliances. A law constraining freedom of movement between parties was ruled unconstitutional in 2010.
The law granting the largest party the first opportunity to form a government creates an incentive for parties to register with the Registrar of Political Parties, as does government funding for parties.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The opposition has a reasonable chance of dislodging the government in elections or through a no-confidence vote on the floor of Parliament. Since independence in 1975, only two governments have served out a full five-year term: those led by Michael Somare in 2002–07 and Peter O’Neill in 2012–17. Immediately after the 2017 elections, the opposition benches were stronger than under the previous government. However, most MPs from the major opposition party, Pangu, later defected to join O’Neill’s government, as did several other lawmakers.
The frequency of no-confidence votes has been diminished somewhat by a provision that grants an incoming prime minister an 18-month “grace period.”
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
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.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
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. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people face societal discrimination that impedes their ability to advocate for their interests in the political sphere.
A 2005 agreement ended a civil war in Bougainville and provided for an independence referendum to be held between 2015 and 2020. While the Autonomous Bougainville Government has been building its own civil service in preparation for the possibility of becoming an independent nation, and laying groundwork for a referendum, central authorities have expressed opposition to the island’s possible secession. In October 2018, the two sides agreed on the wording of the question to be put to voters, allowing them to choose between greater autonomy and independence. However, the referendum, scheduled for 2019, would not be legally binding on Papua New Guinea’s government.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 3 / 12 (−1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
The prime minister heads the government, but cabinet ministers often exert considerable control over their portfolios without necessarily being answerable to the cabinet. There are no powerful external forces that determine the policies of government, though logging and mining companies have been known to court 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.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4 (−1)
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 millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent payments to local law firm Paraka Lawyers that were allegedly authorized by O’Neill, the prime minister responded by disbanding the task force; when courts ordered its resurrection, the government cut its funding. The police force formally dropped the Paraka case against the prime minister in August 2018.
Separately, O’Neill suspended Minister for Public Enterprise and State Investment William Duma and then defense minister Fabian Pok in 2017 over claims that they had profited from a multimillion-dollar land deal associated with plans to relocate the Port Moresby naval base. However, Duma and Pok were reelected to Parliament later in the year, and their United Resources Party became a key player in O’Neill’s new coalition government. Pok assumed the powerful petroleum and energy portfolio, and Duma took his previous position. In August 2018, police dropped investigations into the naval base scandal.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because law enforcement authorities have failed to pursue corruption allegations implicating the prime minister and other powerful politicians in recent years.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Government operations are generally opaque, and the government does not frequently release accurate information about public expenditures, procurement processes, or officials’ assets. Papua New Guinea does not have an access to information law. The veracity of spending and revenue figures issued by the government during 2018 was questioned by at least one outside economist.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 41 / 60 (+3)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (+1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
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. Politicians have been known to harass media professionals over negative stories, and journalists can also face physical attacks in the course of their work. In February 2018, a group of men working for the governor of Morobe assaulted a newspaper reporter over his reporting. Four assailants were arrested and paid a small fine. A journalist was fired from a state-owned television station in November over his coverage of the government, but was reinstated under public pressure.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4 (+1)
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.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no reports of significant restrictions on religious freedom in recent years.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected, though the police have at times violently suppressed student demonstrations on campus.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
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.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12 (+1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly. However, marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval, and authorities sometimes deny permits. Police have used force to suppress demonstrations by asylum seekers on Manus Island.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4 (+1)
A number of nongovernmental organizations 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.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to the lack of any significant state restrictions on NGOs or recent reports of interference with their work.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
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.
F. RULE OF LAW: 8 / 16 (+1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4 (+1)
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.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the higher courts have displayed relative independence in recent years, striking down government initiatives and attempting to hold some officials accountable for malfeasance.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
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.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Law enforcement officials have been implicated in brutality and corruption. 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, but its officers lack powers of arrest and are restricted by a 2005 court ruling that removed immunities from prosecution under local law.
In June 2018, the government declared a nine-month state of emergency in the Southern Highlands after a court decision, which rejected a challenge to the 2017 election of the provincial governor, prompted a wave of violence by armed rioters. A separate court case challenging the same election was ongoing at year’s end.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
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, which is mainly linked to resentment toward a growing Chinese business presence that is viewed as 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 pays the Papua New Guinean government to accept asylum seekers who arrived in Australian waters by boat. Those who are not granted refugee status or do not agree to settle in Papua New Guinea are left in limbo, with Papua New Guinea’s government claiming that these people are Australia’s responsibility. Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that Australia’s Manus Island detention center was unconstitutional, and the facility officially closed in 2017, but hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers remain in other accommodation on the island amid reports of poor living conditions, violence, and health problems. The Australian government has been reluctant to allow refugees to enter Australia, but some have been sent to the United States as part of a deal between the US and Australian governments.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
There are few constraints on freedom of movement for citizens. Movement remains restricted for those who were detained at the Australian-run detention center on Manus Island. In November 2018, dozens of asylum seekers and refugees were transferred from Port Moresby, where they had been receiving medical treatment, back to Manus Island as part of the preparations for an international summit in the capital.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
In Papua New Guinea, 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 2017, O’Neill claimed that all SABLs had been canceled, but Lands and Physical Planning Minister Justin Tkatchenko acknowledged in 2018 that most of the leases were still being contested in court. Women face disadvantages regarding property rights and inheritance, particularly under customary law.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
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. About two-thirds of partnered women have experienced physical abuse, according to multiple studies. Abortion is illegal except when it is necessary to save the woman’s life.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
Legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions are weakly enforced, and frequent abuses in sectors including logging and mining have been reported. The government does not actively prosecute human traffickers, and efforts to identify victims are inadequate. The United States Department of Labor has assembled evidence of child labor in the coffee, cocoa, palm oil, and rubber sectors, as well as in commercial sexual exploitation. The US State Department describes bride-price payments as facilitating labor and sexual exploitation.