Papua New Guinea: Political impasse threatens stability

Failure to resolve the current situation in Papua New Guinea could lead to the imposition of sanctions from outside.

Somare (L) and his supporters argue that he is the legitimate Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea [GALLO/GETTY]

New South Wales, AustraliaRecent events in Papua New Guinea have highlighted two seemingly quite different kinds of behaviour. On the one hand, contestants on all sides of politics claim to be upholding the Constitution, while suggesting others are not. On the other hand, the current reality is that there are two sets of claimants to the office of Prime Minister and other Ministries, Police Commissioner and other important positions. This is a situation for which the Constitution does not provide. 

Uncertain just who is in the right – or, perhaps, simply unwilling to take sides – the media in Papua New Guinea have taken to referring to one set of claimants to be the legitimate Government of the country as “the regime reinstated by the Supreme Court”, which is led by Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, the country’s first and longest-serving Prime Minister (most recently, since 2002). The other set of claimants, led by, Peter O’Neill, a former Minister in the previous Somare-led government, and the previous Leader of the Opposition, Belden Namah, is described as “the regime elected by the National Parliament”. 

Important aspects of the ongoing contest have still to be tested in court. However, in practical terms, O’Neill and his supporters appear to have the upper hand. They are in the majority in Parliament, and heads of national government departments and state services have generally agreed – and publicly declared – they will serve the Ministers named by O’Neill as the Government-of-the-day. This followed a difficult period in which senior officials sometimes found themselves receiving requests for advice and instructions from two different persons, each claiming to be the Minister with relevant responsibility on behalf one of the two sets of claimants to be the legitimate Government-of-the-day.

It is unclear whether the recent public recognition and statement of support for the O’Neill Government by the Defence Force Commander, Police Commissioner and a senior security official might have played a part in the Somare government’s decision to recall a retired senior officer, Colonel Yaura Sasa, to duty and appoint him as Defence Force Commander. 

Interview: Papua New Guinea troop mutiny

This latest appointment was followed by an action in which Colonel Sasa and a number of armed supporters took over control of Defence Force headquarters in Port Moresby on January 26 and held the Commander, Brigadier-General Francis Agwi (himself a previous Somare government appointee) prisoner in his residence. The action was taken in the name of upholding the Constitution – and the Somare regime. Colonel Sasa gave political leaders a week to resolve the current political impasse. 

The military confrontation, which lasted for less than a day, was largely resolved when Colonel Sasa decided to withdraw and hand himself in to the Police (who have charged him with mutiny). His supporters have since handed over their guns and given themselves up. The latter have been promised immunity from prosecution by the O’Neill regime’s Acting Defence Minister and deputy leader, Belden Namah (who was himself a soldier gaoled for mutiny in the aftermath of the Sandline affair, when the Defence Force rose up against the Government-of-the-day in 1997 to prevent the deployment of foreign mercenaries to deal with the Bougainville Conflict).

Political conflict

The current political conflict over the Prime Ministership began in August 2011, when the National Parliament resolved that the office was vacant. The decision was made while Sir Michael Somare was still undergoing medical treatment in Singapore, where he had been in hospital – and believing he was on leave from Parliament – for some months.  Close family members had previously said publicly they believed it would be best if Sir Michael left public life for the sake of his health.

However, the political reality by then was that a previous Supreme Court decision, made more than 12 months before, had found that a law which obliged MPs to vote with their parties on such critical issues as motions of no-confidence was unconstitutional. As a result, leading members of the party, the National Alliance, and the coalition previously led by Sir Michael Somare crossed the floor to support Peter O’Neill, whom Parliament elected to the office of Prime Minister on August 2. 

When Sir Michael took the matter to court, the Supreme Court found – by a majority of three judges to two – that he was still the Prime Minister in December. The O’Neill government then introduced legislation which effectively sought to rescind the leave previously granted to Sir Michael and disqualify him from holding his seat (the East Sepik Regional Electorate). The same legislation placed a further obstacle in the way of Sir Michael being Prime Minister by placing an upper age limit (72) on the office which is several years less than his actual age.

Sir Michael Somare and his supporters argue that the Supreme Court decision means that he is the legitimate Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. O’Neill and his supporters claim that the Supreme Court decision has been overtaken by the legislation which appears to render Sir Michael ineligible to hold either his parliamentary seat or the Prime Ministership. This particular issue has yet to be tested in court.

Following the Supreme Court decision, Somare’s supporters have generally boycotted parliamentary proceedings. Early casualties of their boycott include, proposed amendments to Constitutional Laws to create 22 new parliamentary seats for which women alone will be eligible to stand, and to regularise particular aspects of electoral laws in time for the 2012 general election. Though there is no significant opposition to any of these proposals in Parliament, the absence of Somare’s supporters means that O’Neill lacks the high absolute majorities required to make or amend relevant Constitutional Laws.

Motion of no-confidence

A particular constraint on resolving the contest by the familiar Westminster tactic of moving a motion of no-confidence is a provision in the Papua New Guinea Constitution that a successful vote of no-confidence in the last 12 months of a normal five-year parliamentary term does not lead to a change of government, but to an early election.  The current Parliament was elected in 2007. It is very much less than clear that many members want to give up the perquisites of office earlier than they need, or that the necessary preparations can be made in time for an early election.

Thus, the standoff continues. A remarkable feature of the situation is that all of the contestants claim to be upholding the Constitution. 

Having become independent in 1975, Papua New Guinea is now, in fact, one of the 40-50 oldest unbroken constitutional democracies in the world (though there have been previous occasions when the Constitution has been put to the test, most notably during the Sandline affair in 1997, when the military intervened to prevent the use of foreign mercenaries in the Bougainville Conflict).

However, the Constitution seems to have moved on from being widely regarded as the ultimate source of political authority in Papua New Guinea to being used as an instrument in political conflicts in which participants and their legal advisers try to make use of its provisions in support of particular individuals, parties, or causes with which they are allied. This is, in part, a product of a generational shift in politics which is a significant aspect of recent events.

Political deadlock continues in Papua New Guinea

On the one hand, Sir Michael Somare is one of only two current Members of Parliament who participated in the widespread public consultations and intense parliamentary debates which led to the making and adoption of Papua New Guinea’s “home-grown” Constitution (the sons of a number of other participants in the pre-independence constitution-making process, as well as a son of Sir Michael’s, are currently MPs). On the other hand, there is a younger (albeit middle-aged) generation of Papua New Guinean MPs for whom the transition to independence and the constitution-making process are a matter of history, not personal experience. It is MPs of this generation who are among the leaders and members of the government led by Peter O’Neill.

This younger generation embodies another major shift in the political balance at national level from coastal areas, where there had been longer and deeper exposure to Christian missions and colonial rule, including relatively wide access to at least some formal education, to the much more heavily populated Highlands, where government control and access to education and other services is very much more recent (and, in many areas, still not available). 

Inter-regional differences

A remarkable feature of the ongoing impasse is that, despite some very tense moments, the political conflict has not been taken into the streets or led to public disorder. In spite – or is it because? – of Papua New Guinea’s incredible diversity as a nation of 860 plus languages and many different cultures, political differences at national level have not developed an ethnic caste. But inter-regional differences between the Highlands, New Guinea Islands, coastal Papua and the North coast of the mainland have considerable potential as foci for popular mobilisation.

Meanwhile, the disciplined forces generally behave with restraint – with occasional outbreaks described as mutinies – not simply because their members are disciplined and loyal, though many, obviously, are, but because they realise that an attempt to take over government would be resisted by provincial and other political leaders and activists around the country, and they lack the resources (and, perhaps, the certainty of support by the rank and file) to enforce their will.

Recognising the current impasse as essentially political in nature (and not itself a product of a defect in the Constitution), a number of prominent church leaders, academics and other observers have proposed that the impasse be resolved by political means. Options include direct consultation between the rival claimants to government and/or mediation by a neutral third party – preferably, national but, perhaps, from one of the international organisations with a relevant mandate. A further challenge is that failure to resolve the current situation could lead to the imposition of sanctions from outside (for example, under the Cotonou Partnership Agreement between the European Union and 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, including Papua New Guinea).

Already, Standard and Poor has downgraded Papua New Guinea sovereign credit rating.  Coming at a time when Papua New Guinea is facing the challenges of an unprecedented natural resources boom, including a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) project currently under construction at an estimated cost of US $15bn, the complex and potentially wider implications of the ongoing political contest over the Prime Ministership and Government of Papua New Guinea are all too clear.

Edward P Wolfers is Professor of Politics, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.