This paper focuses on electoral quality and malpractice in the Melanesian countries of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands. It argues that the electoral malpractice the countries experience is a product of three interacting political economies: national, international and local. It aims to offer a more comprehensive understanding of the origins of these electoral issues through a focus on these processes. In doing so, it highlights how the balance and nature of power at the different spatial levels plays a crucial role in determining electoral quality.
The paper draws on available existing research, grey literature (in the form of studies and evaluations commissioned by aid agencies) and interview material alongside quantitative analysis
of election results databases.
Neither PNG nor Solomon Islands are authoritarian and, rarely for post-colonial developing countries, both have managed to hold elections continuously since independence. Although there have been attempts at subverting the democratic process locally, neither country has experienced coherent national-level attempts at reducing democratic space. However, election conduct in these countries is far from ideal. While aid agencies and domestic organisations have invested considerable effort in fostering better elections and in voter education campaigns, issues of electoral malpractice remain. Together these factors differentiate Solomon Islands and PNG from the types of cases that have been the basis of the majority of existing studies of electoral quality. Why have improvements been hard to sustain? What might be done in the future to address this?
The form and extent of malpractice in both countries is the product of three interacting political economies:
- National political economy which incentivises Members of Parliament in both countries to neglect—but not, at the national level, actively attempt to capture—electoral process and systems. Governments are not sanctioned for not improving electoral quality, and current practice often allows MPs to gain from their own local-level misdeeds.
- International political economy which affords international actors limited power to serve as a balancing force against national-level neglect of electoral quality. Improvement associated with aid work often cannot be sustained due to the first political economy.
- Localised political economy is based around the balance of power within constituencies, communities and also provinces. There is significant scope for local actors to subvert processes because the state is weak and because electoral capacity is comparatively low.
Path dependency also emerges, with historical patterns of electoral violence determining future behaviour.
Electoral malpractice does not always require an organised faction of a country’s political elite to capture national elections. Nor does the absence of this capture translate into a well-run election as the cases of PNG and Solomon Islands illustrate. However, the two cases do suggest that while aid can contribute to electoral improvements, more easily here than in stronger and/or more autocratic stats, the ability of international actors to bring improvements is constrained by other dynamics. Election-focused aid work will be most likely to succeed when it is consciously situated amongst, and tailored to, the other forces that shape electoral quality. Expectations need to be realistic, and timeframes appropriate.