Capital: Port Moresby
Population: 6,500,000

Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 3
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change

Papua New Guinea's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the government's failure to address increasingly widespread instances of corruption and official abuse of power.


Several high-ranking public officials in Papua New Guinea (PNG) were implicated in corruption scandals during 2008, including Prime Minister Michael Somare, who faced accusations of involvement in the disappearance of $30 million in assistance from Taiwan. There was little progress during the year on reducing the country's widespread crime and violence. In June, Bougainville's president, John Kabui, died of a suspected heart attack, and by-elections held at the end of the year resulted in Kabui's replacement by James Tanis. The country's first increase in the official minimum wage in 22 years took effect in December.

Papua New Guinea (PNG), comprising the eastern part of New Guinea and some 600 smaller islands, gained independence from Australia in 1975. In 1988, miners and landowners on Bougainville Island began guerrilla attacks on a major Australian-owned copper mine, and by 1990, the islanders' demands for compensation and profit-sharing became a low-grade secessionist war. Australia and New Zealand brokered a ceasefire in 1998 and a peace treaty in 2001. The treaty called for elections for a semiautonomous Bougainville government and a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. Parliament approved a new constitution for Bougainville in 2004, and voters chose John Kabui, an independence advocate, as their first president in 2005. Australia remained deeply involved in recovery efforts, sending observers, peacekeepers, police officers and trainers, and material assistance.

A new preferential voting system, in which voters may choose up to three preferred candidates on their ballots, was fully implemented in the July 2007 general elections. Prime Minister Michael Somare's National Alliance captured 27 of the 109 Parliament seats. Elections were marred by many reports of fraud, lost ballots, attacks on journalists and candidates, and deaths. According to Transparency International and the PNG Institute of National Affairs, the Electoral Commission's list of nearly 4 million registered voters in a country of 6 million people was too high to be credible, especially when 1.4 million names belonging to deceased persons, minors, and other invalid names were supposedly purged from the old registry. In August, with support from minor parties and independents, the new Parliament elected 71-year-old Somare to a second five-year term.

A major source of controversy for Somare has been his alleged involvement in enabling Julian Moti, an Australian citizen of Fijian origin, to escape to the Solomon Islands; Moti was wanted in Australia for alleged sex crimes with a minor in Vanuatu in 1997 and was arrested in PNG in September 2006. While waiting for extradition to Australia, Moti landed in the Solomon Islands in a PNG military plane in October 2006 and assumed his appointment as the attorney general. Widespread public criticism pressured the PNG defense minister to create a special inquiry board in December 2006, although Somare tried to end the investigation throughout 2007 and dismissed his defense minister. Somare then made himself the acting defense minister, entitling him to receive the board's formal report, which he barred from public release. A leaked copy indicated that one of the report's recommendations was the prosecution of Somare for allegedly assisting in Moti's escape. Somare asked a court to nullify the report, although the court rejected this request and Somare subsequently appealed the ruling. By the end of 2008, an Ombudsman Commission's investigation into the Moti affair still had to complete its work as Somare fought to terminate any investigation into his personal finances.

Kabui died suddenly in June of a suspected heart attack, and a by-election to select a new president was held between November 29 and December 12, 2008. Heavily armed roadblocks stopped residents of some regions from voting, and many voters were unable to cast their ballots because their names were missing from the electoral rolls. On December 28, James Tanis, vice president of Kabui's Bougainville People's Congress, was elected president; he received 2,000 votes more than the second highest polling candidate, Sam Akoitai, a former national government cabinet minister. The victory of Tanis, aged 43, reflected a generational shift in the country's leadership.

Logging and other forms of natural-resource exploitation have spurred economic growth in recent years, but poverty remains widespread. The country suffers from widespread illiteracy and a shortage of trained teachers. In September 2008, however, the government promised to invest $280 million to expand and improve schools.

In recent years, the government has tightened controls on illegal migrants from Indonesia's Papua Province to avoid aggravating already strained relations with Jakarta. Many Papuans come to PNG to escape the Indonesian military and police or to trade.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Papua New Guinea is an electoral democracy. Nevertheless, the most recent elections in 2007 were marred by reports of irregularities, fraud, and violence. Voters elect a unicameral, 109-member Parliament to serve five-year terms. The prime minister, the leader of the majority party or coalition, is formally appointed by the governor-general, who represents Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. A limited preferential voting system that allows voters to rank three candidates by preference recently replaced the first-past-the-post system, which critics claimed was open to bribery.

The major parties are the National Alliance, the United Resources Party, the Papua New Guinea Party, and the People's Progressive Party. Parties do not generally spell out policy platforms because voting is largely determined by tribal, linguistic, geographic, and personal ties. Many candidates run as independents, aligning with parties after they are elected.

Corruption and abuse of office are severe problems. Although a number of high-profile corruption cases are pursued each year, comprehensive reforms to increase transparency and the rule of law have not occurred. In April 2008, the Auditor General stated that corrupt officials have stolen approximately $318 million annually in recent years. Several prominent officials were involved in corruption scandals during 2008, including Prime Minister Michael Somare, who was implicated in May for involvement in the disappearance of $30 million in assistance from Taiwan. Somare subsequently attempted to cite executive privilege to avoid investigation into the allegations, although the National Court in June 2008 ruled that the Ombudsman's Commission could continue its investigation into Somare. In April, Isaac Lupari, the finance department's chief secretary, resigned when it was revealed that $70 million was missing from the department's accounts. In May, Kevin Puruno, the former treasurer for the Southern Highlands province, was arrested and charged with misappropriating $95,000. PNG ranked 151 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech is generally respected. The media provide independent coverage and report on controversial issues such as alleged abuses by police, official corruption, and the views of the political opposition. There are two major daily newspapers and several local weekly and monthly publications. PNG has three state-owned radio stations and several private ones, plus two state-owned and one commercial television stations. In September, a new state-owned television station began broadcasting. The government barred newspapers from reporting on the proposed budget prior to the government's official announcement in December 2008. Digicel, a mobile telephony operator actively expanding its presence in the Pacific, won an operating license in November 2008, effectively ending the government's monopoly on mobile and fixed-line telephony. Access to the internet is not restricted by the government; cost and lack of infrastructure are the main barriers.

The government upholds freedom of religion. Academic freedom is generally respected, but the government does not always tolerate strong criticism.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally observes this right in practice. Many civil society groups provide social services and advocate for women's rights, environmental conservation, and other causes. The government recognizes workers' rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining. Marches and demonstrations require 14 days' notice and police approval. In response to calls by unions and the public, the minimum wage was increased to $43 per week (up from about $13) effective December 2008; this was the first such increase in 22 years. One day after air traffic controllers went on strike in November 2008 to demand unpaid wages, the government promised to make full compensation, and the strike ended.

The judiciary is independent, and the legal system is based on English common law. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and has original jurisdiction on constitutional matters. The National Court hears most cases and appeals from the lower district courts. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under both customary and statutory law. Suspects often suffer lengthy pretrial detentions and trial delays because of a lack of trained judicial personnel. In August 2008, 200 inmates at Buimo jail, the largest correctional facility in PNG, went on a hunger strike to protest the long delays in their cases.

Law enforcement officials have been accused of unlawful killings, extortion, rape, theft, the sale of firearms, and the use of excessive force in the arrest and interrogation of suspects. In 2007, the Ombudsman's Commission named the police department PNG's most corrupt government agency. The correctional service is short of staff, and prison conditions are poor. Prison breaks are not uncommon: more than 60 inmates, including violent criminals, escaped from prisons in 2008. Serious crimes, including firearms smuggling, rape, murder, and drug trafficking, continue to increase. Weak governance and law enforcement are said to have made PNG a base for many Asian organized crime groups. Military control and effectiveness are hampered by a lack of training and equipment, poor morale, low pay, corruption, and disciplinary problems.

Native tribal feuds over land, titles, religious beliefs, and perceived insults frequently lead to violence and deaths. Inadequate law enforcement and the increased availability of guns have exacerbated this problem. Attacks on ethnic Chinese and their businesses have become more frequent in recent years.

Discrimination and violence against women and children are widespread. Females suffer high mortality rates from a lack of basic maternal health services, teenage pregnancy and abortion, pregnancy-related complications, and domestic violence. Although domestic violence is punishable by law, prosecutions are rare, as police commonly treat it as a private matter, and family pressure and fear of reprisal discourage victims from pressing charges. Women are frequently barred from voting by their husbands. Only one woman currently sits in the Parliament. HIV/AIDS is a growing threat; an estimated 100,000 people, or 2 percent of the population, are infected, and up to 12 percent of all university students are HIV-positive. Illiteracy and absence of government leadership and resources remain major obstacles to intervention.

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