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The neighbours go to the polls: upcoming elections in Australia’s region


While much of the global focus in 2017 will be on the implications of a new administration in the US and political contests in countries such as Germany and France, there will also be important elections in Australia’s region.

Two of Australia’s closest neighbours, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Timor-Leste, will hold elections in 2017.

PNG has scheduled national parliamentary elections in June and July 2017. In terms of election management, cost, integrity, and security are major challenges. PNG’s elections are among the most expensive in the world—according to one assessment, the cost per voter in the 2012 elections was US$63, compared to the typical cost per voter of around US$5. Prospective candidates and civil society groups have criticised a government proposal to recoup some of these costs through increased fees for nominating candidates and disputing results in court. Integrity and security, particularly in highland regions, remain a challenge given the levels of corruption and violence in PNG. While the 2012 and 2007 elections were comparatively peaceful, the 2002 elections saw at least 25 people killed, many more injured and the results for six seats invalidated due to violence and electoral fraud. A 2014 review of Australia’s electoral assistance found that the 2007 election rolls contained half a million ‘excess voters’—‘an improvement from the 1.4 million excess voters on the electoral rolls in 2002, but the number increased again to 900,000 in 2012’. Compounding these challenges, preparations for the 2017 polls are occurring amidst a serious deterioration in PNG’s economic outlook and allegations of high level corruption and police brutality.

Timor-Leste will hold presidential elections in March/April and parliamentary elections in July. The presidential candidates are yet to be finalised, but the current President, Taur Matan Ruak, is reportedly encouraging former president and foreign minister, José Ramos-Horta, to run. Ruak is expected to compete in the parliamentary elections as a populist challenger to the current power-sharing arrangement between Timor’s two largest parties. Australia’s recent agreement to end a contentious Timor Sea resource-sharing treaty and to commence negotiations on permanent maritime borders will likely take some of the nationalist heat out of the elections and reinforce a focus on ‘bread and butter’ issues. In a recent public opinion survey, Timorese respondents identified roads, employment and education as priority issues. Civil society groups and international donors continue to voice concerns about the sustainability of the government’s use of Timor’s dwindling petroleum revenues, particularly its focus on large-scale infrastructure projects.

Despite their proximity, there are few electoral similarities between PNG and Timor-Leste. One of the most notable differences is the disparity in the number of women in their respective parliaments. While PNG struggled to elect its highest-ever percentage of women in 2012 (just 2.7 per cent), Timor-Leste has seen a steady increase since independence and is today among the world’s top 20 (38.5 per cent).   

Further afield, the timing of Thailand’s national parliamentary elections—repeatedly delayed following a military coup in 2014—remains uncertain. While as recently as early January a senior Thai minister dismissed concerns that the vote could be postponed to 2018, the military government’s preoccupation with managing a sensitive royal succession and constitutional changes, a sustained economic downturn, and ongoing divisions within Thai society have diminished the likelihood of a 2017 poll. Thai officials have stated that legislative drafting and other steps required before elections can be held under the new constitution could take as long as 18 months. Under the new constitution, the lower house of parliament will be elected through a proportional voting system, a move ‘aimed at reducing the influence of Thailand’s major political parties’. Additional election delays are likely to inhibit Western attempts to restore full security ties with Bangkok and further increase China’s growing strategic and economic influence in Thailand.

Subnational elections will also be held in Indonesia and Cambodia in 2017. On 15 February, 101 simultaneous elections will select leaders for some of Indonesia’s most important regional centres. The February elections will include the race for Jakarta’s governor, a contest which is stress-testing Indonesia’s reputation as a religiously tolerant multi-ethnic nation and roiling elite politics. Elections will also take place in Aceh and West Papua, provinces in which the potential for election-related conflict remains a concern. As in the 2015 regional elections, personalities (rather than parties), local dynasties and innovative forms of ‘money politics’ are expected to feature prominently.  

In Cambodia, commune elections are scheduled for 4 June. The polls occur against a background of the continuing repression of opposition parties and civil society organisations by the governing Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), as well as Phnom Penh’s deepening dependence on China. A 2013 national election triggered a protracted political crisis following a strong result for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and allegations of electoral fraud. In the lead-up to a 2018 national poll, a strong set of local results for the CNRP could portend the type of measures the CPP would be willing to take to remain in power. The eminent Cambodia historian, Milton Osborne, offers a blunt assessment—‘…Hun Sen and his party are ready to take all actions that they see as necessary to stay in office. Whether their actions accord with Western concepts of the rule of law is not a consideration’.

There may also be other, unforeseen polls. In Malaysia, there remains speculation as to whether embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak will bring forward parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018.

Monitoring preparations, observing the conduct and reporting of these elections (and their implications for our interests) will be a focus for Australia’s diplomatic network in the months ahead. The Government has also commissioned a major evaluation of Australia’s electoral assistance, an assessment that will encompass the ‘effectiveness, efficiency and inclusiveness’ of the aid program’s significant investments in electoral democracy in eight countries in the region, including PNG, Timor-Leste and Indonesia. The evaluation is expected to be completed by the end of June 2017.