June 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Big Man Politics

By Johnny Langenheim
Thompson Harokaqveh campaigning in Gamusi, PNG, October 2011. © James Morgan
PNG Elections

Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Environment and Conservation is on the campaign trail, sitting on a litter of jungle roots and leaves. His retinue includes a troupe of young boys caked in green mud, the tops of their heads shorn and the hair re-attached as beards so that the boys resemble dwarves – a good omen in these parts. Three old women with painted faces are stamping and ululating as if ready to do battle. Twelve roasted pigs, gifts from the locals, lie splayed under the hot sun, alongside three goats and too many chickens to count.

As well as a minister, Thompson Harokaqveh is the incumbent MP for Goroka, capital of the volatile Eastern Highlands province of PNG and a key parliamentary seat. He’s visiting Gamusi, a remote rural outpost about two hours out of town, to drum up support in the 23 June parliamentary elections by opening a new road to help farmers get their produce to market. Though heavy rain has turned the road to slurry, the crates of SP Lager in the back of his ute will doubtless help his cause.

Judging by the reception, he seems a shoo-in. But politics in PNG is as crafty and convoluted as anywhere else. “I’ll have to compensate everyone who donated,” Harokaqveh confides after he’s finished dividing the gifts of meat fairly among his followers. “And I’ll end up having to pay far more than the market price when they come knocking at my door.”

Electability here is not predicated on creeds, but on the power and charisma of the individual, his clan affiliations, his political allegiances and his ability to satisfy the immediate interests of his supporters. (Of the 109 parliamentary seats, 108 are held by men.) As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins outlined in his seminal paper ‘Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief’, “Big Man syndrome” is deeply embedded in traditional social structures. The acquisition of power and material wealth – ‘cargo’ in the local parlance – brings with it a responsibility to administer and distribute it fairly among your wantok (literally ‘one talk’). Big Man syndrome’s extension into modern democratic politics can be problematic. After all, Harokaqveh didn’t pay for the road for these villagers: taxes did.

PNG is a constitutional monarchy, having inherited the Westminster system from its colonisers. But it is also a country governed by complex clan structures, in which more than 800 distinct languages are spoken and more than 40 political parties are registered. Since achieving independence in 1975, the country has been governed by a series of unstable coalitions, subject to frequent votes of no confidence. MPs will readily cross the floor to join another party if it serves their own ends.

Harokaqveh himself was rewarded with his ministerial post last year after supporting Peter O’Neill, the current Prime Minister, in a no-confidence motion against the government of Michael Somare, the elder statesman of PNG politics. At that time Somare had been hospitalised in Singapore for some months due to ill health, but he later recovered and in December sparked a constitutional crisis when he claimed O’Neill’s government was unlawful. O’Neill managed to quell the challenge through weight of numbers. “PNG politics has nothing to do with ideology … we haven’t got to that yet,” explains Harokaqveh. “It’s not about parties, it’s all about individuals.”

In the last election, five years ago, 2600 contenders vied for the allegiances of the voting public. This year there will likely be many more, in view of PNG’s burgeoning resource wealth and the concomitant promise of an annual District Support Grant worth 10 million kina ($5 million).

 In the highlands, where tribal conflict is endemic, the election race is an incendiary mix of traditional sing-sings, violence and fraud, fuelled by cash, guns, beer and marijuana. Wealthy candidates set up notorious campaign houses, where their (male) supporters are plied with alcohol, drugs and women. A 2007 study led by anthropologist Philip Gibbs recorded a sudden spike in sexually transmitted diseases in the immediate aftermath of that year’s election.

Harokaqveh claims that many of his opponents are encouraging their followers to stockpile automatic weapons, which have found their way to the highlands from conflict zones like neighbouring West Papua and the autonomous region of Bougainville. Simple subsistence farmers may have AK47s and A2 rifles stashed away. “They’re traded for cannabis,” says David Seine, the provincial police commander. “We’re totally understaffed. In Goroka, the ratio of police to citizens is one to 500. It’s just not enough.”

Rural poverty and conflicts have led to the growth of migrant ‘settler’ communities throughout the highlands, particularly in major cities like Goroka and Mount Hagen, capital of the Western Highlands, fomenting mistrust among locals. In October last year, for instance, 15 men were massacred in the town of Kainantu, about an hour from Goroka, following ethnic tensions. “During the 2007 election a candidate died in a car crash,” comments one of Harokaqveh’s supporters, Kenneth Manove. “His followers were convinced it was witchcraft and killed three young guys from a rival tribe.”

Disputes and schisms are so normal that mechanisms for dealing with a crisis – known in pidgin as a ‘heavy’ – are deeply woven into the culture. The large groups sitting under trees or shaded by umbrellas in Goroka’s central park, for instance, are not social gatherings, but mediations. “The mediator’s goal is to prevent conflict or revenge cycles,” Manove explains. “It always comes down to compensation – money is important to people and this initial gesture demonstrates remorse.”

The promise of overflowing coffers from new mining projects means more is riding on this election than on any before it. PNG’s economy is driven by vast resource projects, many of them controversial. The unpopular Bougainville copper mine was a major catalyst for the island’s bloody secessionist struggle in the late twentieth century. Now Exxon Mobil is developing a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project in the southern highlands, set to open in 2014. Although plagued by land disputes, it will be PNG’s biggest project ever, potentially boosting GDP by 20%.

Yet the new economy, which has made PNG life expensive, caters almost exclusively to the corporate interests that sustain it. Little of the wealth trickles down. Local people, including landowners, are largely passed by. A mix of corruption and incompetence means public infrastructure struggles to cope with a growing population. In Goroka, running water and electricity are only sporadically available. An emerging middle class is struggling to establish itself and remains more concerned with hand-outs than policy. Meanwhile, the Australian Defence Force has measures in place to evacuate 15,000 expatriates should the election get out of hand.

Johnny Langenheim
Johnny Langenheim is a writer and film-maker, specialising in South-East Asia. @shtum

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