The Escalating Trend of Political Dynasties in PNG
With PNG Election 2012 looming on the horizon (the writs will be issued on Friday, 27 April – just over five weeks away), it is only fair that we turn our attention to some of the major players and characters who will be performing in PNG’s biggest political sing-sing.
Of particular relevance in this unfolding drama are the new relationships being forged and the old alliances being broken all in the name of retaining or securing power. Already a precedent, the escalating trend of political dynasties in PNG politics is now becoming accepted as a norm, and even possibly a cultural expectation, within the private spheres of ambitious PNG families and their supporters.
John Dalberg-Acton, the First Baron Acton, uttered this famous line more than a century ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
As PNG matures as a nation-state, that adage’s eternal wisdom has begun to haunt the PNG political landscape, and our recent political crisis has even highlighted that it is not so easy to let go of government or power once one has developed a taste for it.
I read with interest in Friday’s The National a report on former MP and Madang businessman Peter Yama’s declaration that other political parties wanted to join forces with his People’s Labour Party (PLP) to contest the election. Yama further appealed to party executives to appoint him as leader of the PLP in his quest to win the Usino-Bundi seat while his son would be contesting Madang’s regional seat – the office he once held.
Peter Yama and his son are the latest in a series of father and son teams to simultaneously contest parliamentary seats within a given province. They are following in the path of a very select but prominent list of PNG families who have proven that it can be done: Sir Michael Somare and son Arthur Somare and Sir Julius Chan and son Byron Chan. Both families currently hold two parliamentary seats within their respected provinces.
But simultaneous father and son teams running on the family ticket backed up by family resources in PNG aren’t completely a new phenomenon, instead, they’re a natural progression of the age old political dynasty which has shaped some of the greatest democracies in the world.
There is an established list of fathers and sons who have successfully contested general elections in PNG, albeit not simultaneously. There is also a longer list of unsuccessful father and sons who have failed in their ambition to become parliamentarians. In addition to the Somares and Chans, the successful list includes Sir Tei Abal and his son, former Deputy Prime Minister Sam Abal; and Oscar Tammur and his son, the recently deceased Kokopo Open MP Patrick Tammur.
Political Dynasties in PNG
Once in power, political dynasties and their supporters try to recoup financial losses incurred during their electoral campaigns by milking the system and repaying friends and supporters through government appointments and favors. Somehow, they manage to transform local and national politics into a profitable cottage family business.
Political dynasties that have a long history in local and national politics have gained wealth and fortune through years of ‘public service’. And of course with great wealth, they have a sustainable economic base to finance their numerous local and national electoral campaigns, and to also help invest in their progeny to carry the baton.
Aside from gaining wealth from the political hierarchy, over time many of these political dynasties have expanded their own business interests in a wide range of industries. Once in power, they have an edge over competitors courtesy of tax exemptions and government protection.
The proactive mobilization of tribal clans through the wantok system to ensure the victory of a candidate or a political family in their respective political position(s) is what secures the longevity of a dynasty.
Comparing Dynasties in PNG to the United States
Steven Hess, author of the book America’s Political Dynasties, shows us by citing the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons and more that political dynasties are also prevalent within American politics. The same can be seen with the Gandhis in India.
But what is astonishing in PNG’s case is the short amount of time, roughly 36 years, that PNG dynasties have managed to integrate themselves into PNG’s political landscape and transform themselves from rags to riches.
Hess points out that although American politics is riddled with dynasties, some of the US’s greatest presidents, like Lincoln and Washington, were part of no dynasty.
As we countdown to April 27, more and more intending candidates will show their hand. There will be some new faces with new names and new faces with old names. Only time will reveal the fates of PNG’s existing political dynasties, and election 2012 may just kick-start some new ones too.