Are we learning or cheating ourselves?

Focus, Normal

The National, Monday July 9th, 2012

MANY people around the country share the hope that the 2012 national election would end with more successes than failures. 
Various headlines in papers and expressed opinion of other people, however, have indicated that total failure is just around the corner. 
As election observers, some of us have travelled to provinces in recent weeks and observed how eligible voters prepared themselves to exercise their democratic rights through ballot papers. 
I have also been fortunate over the past six months to leave my Port Moresby work hub and talk to people about the impending elections as well as general state of affairs in Papua New Guinea. 
The mood of people can be categorised into four broad sets: (i) apprehension, (ii) anger, (iii) disillusion, and (iv) hope.  
The 2012 general election has been billed as one to indicate whether PNG has really come of age as a young maturing democracy. 
But indications thus far are mixed. 
There appears to be a lull where people are keenly watching as to who will make it from the previous parliament and which new faces are set to serve as lawmakers for the next five years. 
Perhaps the main talking point at this time is the amount of money being thrown to influence the outcome.
That serves a dampening effect on the good intentions of having free, fair and safe elections. 
It makes it a lot difficult too to really assess the depth and quality of democracy in the country. 
The real disappointment for many of us has been candidates who have preached against practices such as vote-buying, but now are at the forefront doing exactly that. 
Some of them and their cohorts are the very ones who have used threats of violence and other “blight-practices” to win at any cost and measure. 
At the side, voters are forced to use faulty electoral rolls while money and kind is dangled in front of them. 
So we wonder: are we enduring genuine or procedural democracy? 
We cannot pretend or argue that we are still learning the vicissitudes of democracy. 
At a time when more people are educated to the highest levels and are widely more politically conscious than ever, I am inclined to think that we have perfected the art of cheating ourselves. 
Consider the design of the limited preferential voting (LPV) system : the three choices were considered a better option to widen the representation of the majority of voters – and by extension to shore up the legitimacy of the elected representative. 
Now, some voters are ganging up and selling their first, second and third preferences with different price range to candidates that offer the highest bid. 
Of course, smart voters earn windfalls since they sell the choices for both the open and provincial seats. 
Selling votes in this manner was first observed in 2007 and therefore it is hardly news to many people. 
If nothing is done to discourage the practice, it can spread to more parts of the country primarily since money is the underlying factor. 
A third of the voters are lurking below the poverty line and they become easy targets. 
Without sounding too philosophical about democracy in PNG, perhaps it is worthwhile noting that it matters that a clear distinction is drawn between how democracy is imbedded in a country and why it manifests itself the way it does. 
This distinction is important since it brings to light two determinant factors to the state of democracy. 
First, democracy exists as a cultural variable. 
Its principles are inculcated by reason and are gradually incorporated by the people into everyday activities. 
General acceptance is the first step to the anchorage of democracy. 
Second, if democracy is a foreign concept to a people, it is likely that it would take time for them to recognise its parameters, accept it, and then inculcate it into reification of life.          
Thus, it is hardly a revelation that many developing democracies, and particularly those that emerged from colonialism, are now trying to mould and re-mould themselves as they try to fit themselves into this jar called democracy. 
Many of them lack a culture of acceptance and legitimacy to allow smooth transitions from other political systems. 
The difference between developed and developing democracies has to do with the democratisation process, a three-step endeavour on a continuum:
lThe breakdown of the non-democratic regime;
lThe establishment of elements of a democratic order; and
lConsolidation where the new democracy is further developed, which eventually leads to democratic
practices being established and becomes integrated into the political culture. 
That being said, questions can be asked about the state of democracy in PNG; given Papua New Guinea’s political history and atomised national composition, can we assume that democracy in the country be able to prosper anytime soon? 
For a country where the traditional and colonial history (until the 1960s) did not resemble a democratic unit, much less a modern state, is it fair to expect democracy to work? 
We, therefore, wonder whether PNG is still going through a democratic learning cycle, or have we gone past that stage and now are professed skilled manipulators of the system? 
There is a renowned maxim which stipulates that there is no perfect democratic government. 
To that end, “democracy is a matter of degree”. 
It presupposes that all countries attempt to measure up to an ideal template. 
Perhaps this should give us some degree of comfort in that PNG is struggling to aim up – particularly just like other developing democracies. 
That, however, is a very weak excuse. 
We are closing in on 37 years as a state but what is there to show for our democratic maturity? 
There is a greater need to change our attitude towards one another as citizens of the country, and towards the state and its institutions.
Papua New Guineans should be grateful about the good and commendable efforts of individuals, some national government agencies, development partners, civil society organisations and churches, among others, who have taken on the onus of aiding the democratic process, as is presently the case, and assisting the people in general. 
To you all, the law-abiding citizens salute you for your efforts. 
Let us hope and pray that some traits of democratic maturity are displayed soon.