Papua New Guinea’s two prime ministers

A country with a history of violence, crime and corruption is effectively leaderless: when two men claim the country’s top job, it means no one is really doing it.

Lifts are the worst.  The confined space means the smell can be intolerable: the body odour reeks.  A hot, humid climate is the chief culprit – but now Papua New Guineans have another reason to sweat. 

A country with a history of violence, crime and corruption is effectively leaderless: when two men claim the country’s top job, it means no one is really doing it. 

Their style is very different. Peter O’Neill is the more professional. His handshake is firmer his suit sharper his message more carefully honed.  Michael Somare would call all that gloss. He may be frailer, and somewhat more dishevelled – but right, he says, is on his side.

The constitutional crisis in Papua New Guinea is the sort of conundrum that lawyers salivate over. While Michael Somare was absent from the country – on death’s door in a Singapore hospital – parliament voted to dismiss him so that a replacement, Peter O’Neill, could get on with the job. But Michael Somare made a sudden – near miraculous – recovery he returned, arguing to the supreme court that he’d been replaced illegally. Last Monday, the judges agreed. 

But Peter O’Neill won’t accept that. The supreme court failed, he argues, to take into account retrospective laws, passed three days before they reached their judgement which – after the fact – legitimised the way Somare was replaced. Retrospective laws are allowed under the constitution, O’Neill says. Not if they affect a case already in front of the supreme court, Somare retorts. 

But, says O’Neill, that’s a side issue. Politics is about numbers. He has the clear support of MPs in parliament.  That’s what counts. 

In Port Moresby this week, I interviewed both men, arguing with each the points of the other. Both have legitimate reasons to feel they are in the right. O’Neill’s “retrospective” laws smack of changing the rules of the game after the fact losing a football match three-nil, then persuading the referee to rule that actually the throw-ins counted more than goals. 

But O’Neill’s clear parliamentary majority is persuasive too. Any Somare government would be a minority one likely to fall straightaway. Why should O’Neill give up being prime minister now for that?

The wider world is watching with alarm. Papua New Guinea has been violent in the past it wouldn’t take much for it to become so again. In Port Moresby at the moment, no sign of that. But with the police, at best, distracted from fighting crime (some have been disarmed to avoid the “perception” of possible gun-barrel diplomacy) and, at worst, split (each prime minster now has his own police commissioner claiming to head up command) the possibility is there.  

Perception matters too. Much of the international media ran with a story on Friday that the situation was all-but-over that O’Neill had all-but “won” because his MPs had “occupied” government offices, which, earlier in the week, Somare had operated from. In fact, O’Neill’s MPs were in and out in half an hour – Somare was back to hold a press conference shortly afterwards. But the claims of “occupancy” had rattled his camp. Whatever constitutional law says, momentum matters: the perception he’s winning might encourage media, governments and the PNG people believe, and declare, the tussel over. Signs of victory could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.   

This isn’t just a struggle between two men. Each is merely the head of a much wider band. Among them, of course, honourable men and women keen to assert power to do good. But there is a dark side too. Both sides accuse members of the other of corruption, and worse. There are elections due in June 2012.  The independent voices I spoke to in PNG said there are nervous people on both sides who are desperate for the confidence and finance that incumbency brings. Also anxious to avoid being subject of any corruption investigation which – in power – the other side might launch. 

When I flew into Port Moresby on Thursday, in the back of my mind was the thought that I might be here to cover the start of a civil war. A few days on that, thankfully, looks unlikely. Both prime minsters used the phrase “Melanesian solution” with me – some form of compromise. But even if violence, in the short-term, looks unlikely, it’s hard to see what that compromise could be.  Both men slapped down one thought: PNG might be a constitutional monarchy, but any solution won’t involve the Queen.

Perhaps getting them to talk face-to-face would be a start. 

In a lift? 

With the doors shut tight until one or other backs down? 


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