Papua New Guinea politics' infamous 'Fifth floor'
The plan to run for the 111-seat PNG national parliament often starts over a beer or two.
By Ben Yamai
It usually starts with a beer or a few, and maybe a friend or two to boot. The idea of standing in a general election in Papua New Guinea (PNG) comes easy to some. And for a many that actually do contest, it remains at that infant stage, all the way from polling through to declaration. Not much thought would usually be given to graduating that idea into a fully-fledged, carefully strategized endeavor. You would not go amiss in finding a group of people, huddled under cigarette fumes, elbow to elbow, with a couple of the amber ale bottles, or scotch glasses for the hardier ones, deep in conversation on one of those round tables in the outer arena of the popular Fifth Floor.
It would most probably be around June or July, a year prior to a scheduled national general election, and aspirations for political office suddenly propagate themselves in all conceivable places, not least of all, a watering hole frequented by some of the so-called elites of society. The crème-de-la-crème. Or so it would seem.
Discussions at such tables do not necessarily focus on politics from the word go. Not as a general rule anyway. But they usually do once topics veer towards happenings in the corridors of Waigani, or what the latest antics of the incumbent Minister to a never-out-of-the-news government department were. Or any political gossip for that matter. As on the talk goes, and the beer flows, one within the group goes silent for a few minutes, trying to determine whether that little spark of inspiration that just passed through his thoughts ought to be voiced out loud. He reasons with himself mentally that he’s already had a few, and speaking out loud any careless thought may earn himself some laughs, or a slap on the back and some shaking heads for proposing such a ridiculous notion. Him, standing for election? He winning votes would be like drawing water from a rock. Sounds corny doesn’t it? And ridiculous too.
But that spark keeps flickering, feeding itself on the reminders of dreams never realized that are tucked away in the narrow passages of our pub politician’s mind. Flickers until it feels like the spark will burst out of his thoughts and reveal itself, so he speaks. To his immense relief, the revelation that he would contest the coming elections is not met with jovial discouragement, but with inebriated mumblings of support. Such words of encouragement would usually be enough to launch him into a litany of empty promises unfulfilled by the current sitting member of whichever electorate our pub politician intends to contest. Shortcomings that he fully intends to correct. Alas, a full bottle placed in front of him as a refill brings him to a respite. But it does not last long. He is subdued only for the time it takes him to take a quick swig or two before the ramblings start again. The tone this time acquires more gravity, taking those who feigned support initially by surprise.
Once it is established that our aspirant has no concrete plans in place, all gathered around the table agree that strategies have to be drawn up yesterday. One or two even volunteer to assist wherever they can with preparations to get our pub politician out to the electorate as soon as possible. He will need to touch base with his relatives, make his intentions known, and gauge his possible support base. All this quickly take place in the next few weeks, and the reception our aspirant receives at home is somewhat chilled, subdued at best. Apparently that spark of inspiration was not unique to him. It had manifested itself in the minds of quite a number of his relatives living in towns and cities as well, and they had gone down the route he was taking earlier than him.
After a few days of sitting around village fires and listening to the lamentations of his village elders, and those that came from near and far to see him, he realizes that he would not come out ahead of some of his more prepared and politically astute relatives from town if polling were done tomorrow. He has also discovered that his pockets, indeed his wallet and travel bag had all developed sieves through which much of what he came with had disappeared. But he quietly thanked the LPV system of voting. Secondary votes can make or break as well. And whatever he had to ‘give away’ could be easily replenished once those great doors down Waigani way are opened to him come August next year. Investments, that’s what they are, he reminds himself.
Back in the city, the months wear on and our pub politician puts himself through the rigorous ordeal of sitting through wet lunches that, on many occasions left mid-afternoon for dust, and settled into dusk, greasing up to people with fat wallets and agendas to push, and looking for candidates to endorse. His family life develops a strain that is like a bad cold that’s hard to shake, and his home suddenly becomes a care center for friends and relatives living in the city, some of whom he’d never heard of. But he assures his family that such are the sacrifices a worker for the people and his family has to make. The greasing worked though, and he secures endorsement from a newly formed political party that had dubious connections to a controversial extractive industry.
December is pushing June and our aspirant makes a few more of those arduous treks back home, always with a sturdier wallet and travel bag, but nothing changes. His people’s worries seem to grow exponentially every time he goes home. So does his wallet’s ability to lose all its contents. He becomes used to seeing only his e-ticket left in his wallet when back at the airport on his way to the city. Once, whilst sitting in the terminal waiting for his return flight, he contemplated the events of the past months and rued that moment when he opened his mouth at the Fifth Floor. Perhaps he should have just doused that spark with a well-timed watering down with South Pacific Brewery’s finest gift to mankind. But gaining political office would more than make up for all those lost dreams, those journeys he never quite completed. Some tired old clichés like ‘the show must go on’ and ‘to the victor go the spoils’ easily push those negative thoughts aside.
The race for the PNG national parliament can be financially and psychologically challenging.
The month of May rolls around with so much excitement and expectation in the air. It was so palpable; our pub politician thought he could reach out and touch it. Nomination at the district headquarters was a blur, as he found himself surrounded by a teeming mass of people from throughout the electorate. There was much singing and dancing, with such a celebratory feel in the air that our candidate felt compelled to address the crowd and remind them that this was only the beginning. The first step. The alpha to an omega which would hopefully present itself in the form of a seat in the national parliament. The institution from which their development aspirations could be met to the fullest extent possible. And as is the case at most such occasions, the gathered crowd cheers, feigned or genuine, he couldn’t tell. But this was his moment and he wouldn’t let any negativity creep up on him.
The campaign period was difficult for him. After having spent the past twenty years in the city without so much as a weekend visit home, trekking the mountainous terrain was a struggle. It was bad enough struggling to get the landcruiser utility he brought courtesy of his political party through the muddy roads, even worse when he had to get out and trudge through the muck when the ‘road’ became impassable. Afterwards, he estimated that at least twenty percent of his campaign time was spent negotiating those death traps. The time when the utility got stuck in a crater of a bog with only its cabin sticking out a sore reminder.
The problems he heard of from one village to the next seemed identical. So much so that in one particular village, he was not sure whether he had already been through or not. Issues such as poor health services, bad roads (they did not need to tell him about that), declining standards in education services, zero economic activity, the list went on. But our candidate developed a feeling that he was more in touch with his people now. The more he heard of their plight, the more he could identify with them. And the more confident he felt that he was indeed the chosen one, the one who would deliver his people from the wilderness of neglect and marginalization. Promises of block votes were music to him. And knowing the nature of politics in PNG, anyone who plays you music would expect a few tunes from you in return so he obliged with a few promises of feeder roads, health facilities, and perhaps even a wharf. Never mind the fact that his electorate is in the hinterlands and away from the coast. And as an angler would say, many took it hook, line and sinker.
If he thought the campaign period was a struggle, our candidate found the polling stage even more frustrating. Many voters at polling stations spread throughout the electorate found to their dismay, and his disappointment that their names were not listed on the electoral roll. This caused some confusion as many thought that they were already enrolled. Didn’t the national census exercise take place the preceding year? More confusion and problems arose when electoral officials and volunteers decided to boycott polling duties over unpaid allowances. This is quickly resolved by the national electoral authorities and polling progressed. Naturally there would be issues such as double voting, vote rigging, police harassment, under-aged voting, and a whole list of other voting woes our pub politician and his colleague candidates would face. Counting couldn’t come any sooner for many of them.
This period would be the most nerve-wrecking for him. The rigors of campaigning are now a thing of the past, but not so the crowds and hangers-on that keep populating his campaign headquarters. Our candidate had long given up carrying a wallet and now has a waist bag firmly strapped to his being. But even that waist bag did not seem like it could stand a chance against that horde that seems to follow him as if he were the Pied Piper. Word reaches him from the counting room that he was running third, but picking up votes steadily. Things were still in the primary stages.
At the end of the primary count, our candidate finds himself a dozen or so votes off from the candidate running second, but safe from elimination. He constantly reaches into his pocket for his cellphone to place a call to his family to update them on his progress, only to realize at the last moment that he was miles away from the nearest repeater tower. (Yes that was another issue he heard so much about; the lack of mobile communication coverage in his district). In any case, he was sure his children were getting regular updates from all over the country from some internet page called Sharp Talk. The elimination stage is even more nerve-wrecking. Our candidate was thankful he lacked a full crop hair. He was sure he would have lost it all during that period.
When the final stages of elimination came around, our candidate is still trailing by a few votes and seems a genuine contender for that last run to the fourth and home base. Sadly, he falls short. The promised block votes never came through. Neither did votes from areas he thought were his strongholds.
A wallet-less, spent candidate must now make that even harder trek back to the city where a lot of soul searching and evaluating will take place before the year sees Decembers 31st out. He went home with a wallet, a travel bag and a spark, and was hoping to come back with all three and a seat. He goes back with none of the above. As he sat in the plane on his way back, he remembers a saying that goes something like “victory loves preparation”. Or something to that effect, he was too spent to think.
Our pub politician was seen at the Fifth Floor yesterday. He was sitting at the outer bar as usual, but alone this time, one table from that now infamous round table from last year. His beer seemed untouched, and he was just staring at that round table. Some regulars wondered what would have been going through his mind. For some reason, I doubt it was a spark of any kind.
- Disclaimer: any similarities to persons, alive or deceased is unintentional. This piece is purely fictional.