Balden Norman Namah being carried on a stretcher by his people
When the Supreme Court on Dec 12 last year ruled that Sir Michael be restored as prime minister together with his government because there was no vacancy in that office, Namah, being part of the controversial government led by Peter O’Neill, amended laws retrospectively to correct the errors highlighted by the Supreme Court. Namah and his team maintained uncompromisingly that they were a legitimate government. And in the ensuing period, when the Supreme Court for the second time restored Sir Michael’s government in May this year, Namah did a most unprecedented act of storming into the Waigani National and Supreme Court house with a band of military and police officers and ordered the arrest of Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia who was presiding over a contempt charge against lawyer Tiffany Twivey.

The incident drove shivers up everyone’s spine. The events undoubtedly caused a great deal of dislike for Namah in his electorate. What became evident was that 17 candidates formed a group called the Sandaun Candidate Alliance to trade votes among themselves. Their ultimate goal was to ensure Namah did not return as MP. Among the group was Green campaigner Dorothy Tekwie and lawyer Dr Florian Gubon. Gubon was Namah’s runner-up in the 2007 national election. “If you do not want to vote for me, vote for another person,” Gubon said in his final day of campaign in Vanimo town, urging voters not to tick Namah’s name.

It is understood that the Sandaun Candidate Alliance for 2012 also became influential in the move to ask the Electoral Commission to have one-day polling for the Vanimo urban and the Wutung Onei Bewani local level governments – Vanimo Green River electorate. While this could not be confirmed, the candidate alliance group had intelligence information that chances of vote rigging were likely to occur if voting was conducted for more than one day. Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen gazetted the candidate alliance request and voters in both local level governments went to the polls last Monday, June 25.

This first-ever one-day polling on Monday ended without any major incidents. But serious allegations of bribery and conspiracy to tamper with ballot boxes surfaced on Tuesday. These allegations were raised by the Sandaun Candidate Alliance for 2012. Election manager Martin Anskar, provincial police commander Michael Tilai and Vanimo police station commander Robert Nalaik were accused of receiving vehicles funded by Namah. Namah and three officials have since denied this accusation. The candidate alliance was saying that the three officials had now compromised their position and it was highly likely that tampering of votes during storage of ballot boxes and counting could occur, allowing Namah to return.

Twelve candidates petitioned Trawen and copied Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga to immediately effect the suspension of Anskar, Tilai and Nalaik. The candidates include Gubon, Peter Wuni, Steven Kumusi, Tekwie, Martin Negai, Peter Onikre, Arnold Tom, Camilus Awi and Jacob Amatus. They are challenging Namah for the Vanimo-Green River seat. West Sepik regional candidates who were in support of the suspension include Clement Tumana, John Tekwie and Noel Mobiha. Though reasons contained in the petition were various including accusations of receiving vehicles and voters not finding their names on the electoral roll, the issue that sparked the call for suspension was to do with the late arrival of the ballot box from Namah’s Somboi village.

This ballot box arrived at the Vanimo police station at about 4am on Tuesday morning from Bewani. This was confirmed by the presiding officer of the team. “Some ballot boxes from outside of Vanimo have arrived late on Monday, June 25, after close of polling even though the drive is only three hours maximum from Vanimo,” the candidate alliance said. They were referring to the disputed ballot box. “We want the ballot boxes that arrive into the Vanimo police station after 9pm to be set aside,” the candidate alliance added.

What was obvious, as observed by other candidates, was that the late arrival of the one ballot box alone could not withstand the allegation unless there was hard evidence of tampering with the ballot box and it could only be proven during counting. The other issue which led to accusations by the candidate alliance related to an empty ballot box that one presiding officer took to his home at Wutung after returning to Vanimo from polling. The presiding officer had said the empty ballot box was used to store HIV/AIDS awareness pamphlets and other materials as it was unused. Other polling teams did the same.

The polling official was understood to have been brought in for questioning by police early Tuesday morning and later released after it was clearly established that it was an empty ballot box. Election manager Anskar had clarified that the ballot box seals arrived in Vanimo later than the polling day and teams were advised to use the same ballot box for both the open and regional seat in the Wutung Onei Bewani local level government, unlike for Vanimo urban where two ballot boxes were used.

While candidates were concerned about the safety of ballot boxes and the likely tampering of votes, citizens went about their daily routines. Namah had denied he offered vehicles to the police personnel and election manager. Anskar said he had never met Namah in person, describing the accusations as malicious. PPC Tilai welcomed any investigations from the police internal investigations unit. Tilai said Vanimo police had only four vehicles which were used in police operations.