Democracy - does it exist in Papua New Guinea?

By Paul Oates

Having just returned from the original birth place of democracy, in the light of a fellow commentator’s postulations, it seemed appropriate to reflect on whether true democracy does or did ever exit in PNG. So firstly, what is democracy? 

‘Democracy is a political form of government where governing power is derived from the people, either by direct referendum (direct democracy) or by means of elected representatives of the people (representative democracy). The term comes from the Greek: δημοκρατία - (dēmokratía) "rule of the people", which was coined from δμος (dêmos) "people" and κράτος (krátos) "power", in the middle of the fifth-fourth century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BC. Even though there is no specific, universally accepted definition of 'democracy', equality and freedom have been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times. These principles are reflected in all citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to power. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no restrictions can apply to anyone wanting to become a representative, and the freedom of its citizens is secured by legitimized rights and liberties which are generally protected by a constitution.’ [Wikipedia]

Well that seems fairly clear. Democracy exists when:

  1. all citizens are equal before the law and their votes are of equal value, and
  2. legitimized rights and liberties are protected by a constitution.

However George Orwell in his book, ‘Animal Farm’, highlighted the concept that when some of the animals took over the farm, “some were more equal then others”. So are all PNG citizens ‘equal before the law’ one is given to ask? In many so called modern democracies, it seems the way law is applied depends on a citizen’s relative wealth. Given the opportunity, wealth seems to affect the way the law can be applied as expensive legal assistance can often affect the outcome of a court case. Yet even expensive legal assistance can still only be a factor IF a case goes to court. In PNG these days it seems like any legal action involving PNG politicians ever actually gets to court. If the case doesn’t get to court, how can there be any justice decided? So it seems not all PNG citizens are ‘equal before the law’.

Wikipedia goes on:

‘There are several varieties of democracy, some of which provide better representation and more freedoms for their citizens than others. However, if any democracy is not carefully legislated – through the use of balances – to avoid an uneven distribution of political power, such as the separation of powers, then a branch of the system of rule could accumulate power and become harmful to the democracy itself.’

So has a ‘branch of the PNG system of government’ achieved an ‘uneven distribution of power’? Given the performance of the current Somare government where Parliamentary government has effectively been sidelined, the answer would appear to be a resounding “Yes!” It there fore seems that some in the PNG political system have ‘accumulated power and become harmful to democracy itself.’

‘The "majority rule" is often described as a characteristic feature of democracy, but without responsible government or constitutional protections of individual liberties from democratic power, it is possible for dissenting individuals to be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority". An essential process in representative democracies is competitive elections that are fair both substantively and procedurally. Furthermore, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are essential so that citizens are informed and able to vote in their personal interests.’

So are ‘dissenting individuals’ being oppressed in PNG? Given the recent arrangements the Somare government has made concerning local mining and timber industries, many would say ‘No way!’

Are PNG elections ‘fair both substantially and procedurally’? Well with the extra financial resources from foreign sources claimed by the Opposition and the ability to use all government facilities including publically aircraft, it would seem PNG elections are anything but ‘fair’.

So has democracy ever existed in PNG? Well that is in the eye of the beholder. What is clear however is that under the definitions listed in Wikipedia, PNG is not currently a democracy and hasn’t been for some time. 

Why then is Australia still supporting the current PNG government? Elsewhere in the world including Melanesia, leaders of countries who have deposed Parliamentary rule and effectively instituted a dictatorship are sidelined and denounced. 

Why then hasn’t this happened with the current Somare regime?


The reason why the Aussie government still supports the undemocratic Somare government is because there is not enough public clamour that we're living in a dictatorship in PNG. Until the public volume rises a lot, don't expect any changes in diplomacy or recognition.

I should digg your post therefore other people are able to look at it, really useful, I had a tough time finding the results searching on the web, thanks.

- Norman