Political impasse in Papua New Guinea

Two men claim to be prime minister in this Pacific island nation, as Australia becomes more involved in the dispute.

Michael Somare is one of two rival claimants to the office of prime minister [GALLO/GETTY]

New South Wales, Australia – In Papua New Guinea, two men both claim to be the prime minister.

Since its independence in 1975, PNG has been a constitutional democracy. With one exception, there have been changes of government during every five-year term of the country’s parliament.

Although there are important policy differences within PNG political voices, the driving forces of change in the country tend to be rivalries between leaders, parties and regions. Only two changes of government have taken place in response to external events: in 1980, when several Supreme Court judges resigned and major public demonstrations took place following criticism of the court by the then minister of justice; and in 1997, when Sir Julius Chan, then the prime minister, stood aside under pressure from the Defence Force Commander following an attempt by the government to recruit foreign mercenaries to intervene in the Bougainville conflict.

 Political deadlock continues

The origins of the struggle that has dominated national politics since last year are, therefore, not unusual – an attempt to mobilise a majority of MPs to change the government. What’s unprecedented is how the ongoing impasse between two rival claimants to the prime ministership has dragged in nearly every sector of government.

As the impasse has continued, it has begun to affect the foreign relations of Papua New Guinea. At the time of writing, the most likely way to resolve the situation is through the national election due to be held in the middle of 2012 – provided the election is held on time, and is free and fair.

The impasse between the two would-be prime ministers began when the speaker of parliament accepted the opposition’s claims that the prime ministership was vacant. At the time, Sir Michael Somare – who had been elected prime minister in 2007 – had been out of the country for several months while undergoing medical treatment in Singapore. Accordingly, parliament elected a new prime minister, Peter O’Neill.

O’Neill’s initial parliamentary majority – of 70 to 24 – included many former members of the coalition previously put together and led by Somare. Other members have subsequently changed sides.

In December, the Supreme Court found, by a majority of three to two, that Somare was still legally prime minister. Parliament responded by retroactively withdrawing the leave on which Somare had relied while he was out of the country and re-elected O’Neill. It also passed a new law preventing a person aged 72 or older from becoming prime minister. As Somare was already 75, the new law – if it is constitutional – makes him ineligible to return as prime minister.

Although both rivals have some claim to legitimacy – O’Neill has parliament’s backing, and Somare is supported by the Supreme Court – the country’s chief secretary and other heads of government departments have tended to side with O’Neill.

Attempted coup

In late January, retired Colonel Yaura Sasa, who was appointed by the Somare government, led a group of soldiers in the capture of the commander of PNG’s Defence Force, seizing power of the military and demanding Somare be reinstated. The captured brigadier was released later the same day, and Sasa was charged with mutiny.

Dismayed by Sasa’s actions and Somare loyalists’ apparent failure to condemn them, Dame Carol Kidu – an erstwhile Somare supporter – abandoned the Somare backers’ boycott of most parliamentary proceedings and successfully claimed the office of Leader of the Opposition.

The question of who is the legitimate prime minister of PNG is still being contested in court. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, who survived a previous attempt by the O’Neill regime to suspend him from office, was arrested in response to an accusation reportedly made in 2009.

Members of the Supreme Court bench are reported to have met to discuss the situation. A memo prepared by a judge before the meeting – and subsequently leaked online – described the actions of the O’Neill administration as “an attack on the third arm of government by the executive”. It went on to say: “We have to rise up and defend the institution that our oath of loyalty demands of us.”

On March 21, the O’Neill government used its parliamentary majority to pass a new law that, in effect, gives parliament the power to suspend judges for misconduct in office. A number of prominent lawyers have argued that the new law is unconstitutional. Non-governmental organisations have attacked the new law, and thousands of students have demonstrated against it in the capital, Port Moresby.

PNG is home to more than six million people, three national languages and more than 800 vernacular languages. The country’s 22 provinces have different geographies, different colonial histories and different developmental prospects – and these can often be major factors in political contests.

Thus, the O’Neill government’s decision in August to suspend the financial powers of the East Sepik provincial government, which launched the Supreme Court case against O’Neill’s legitimacy as prime minister, not only met with resistance from provincial authorities, but has been widely perceived as an attack on East Sepik. The decision was subsequently withdrawn. 

 Interview: Papua New Guinea troop mutiny

When a team of investigators was sent to examine the provincial government’s use of official funds in February, they were not allowed to remain in the province. Subsequent law-and-order problems in the area have led to the deployment of Defence Force personnel to aid the police.

Meanwhile, activists from the Enga Province in the country’s highlands have demonstrated in support of the chief justice, a fellow Engan.

Although a national election is due to be held by the middle of 2012, reports that accurate electoral rolls may not be ready on time have caused concern. The Electoral Commissioner has given public assurances that the register will be ready, yet some have called for the election to be deferred in order to ensure that the rolls are comprehensive, reliable and accurate.

Parliament’s speaker has taken out a full-page advertisement in the PNG press stating that the country’s electoral commissioner must accept blame for not having the electoral rolls ready, and claiming that parliament has the power to defer the forthcoming election.

However, the deputy to Prime Minister O’Neill, Belden Namah, has proposed that the election should be deferred for a period of 12 months for a quite different reason – to enable the government to implement its policies.

But it’s debated whether PNG’s constitution even allows for the deferral of a national election. For his part, Prime Minister O’Neill has stated that the election would be held according to schedule.

The Australian connection

Australia is by far PNG’s largest trading partner, source of foreign investment and donor of official development assistance. Although Australia already gives PNG an annual aid grant worth over A$480m (US $501m), the Australian government has offered additional aid to ensure that the 2012 election can be held on time. This includes financial, logistical and advisory support for the electoral commission and the police.

Aside from a statement made by its prime minister condemning Sasa’s attempted coup, the Australian government has said little in public about the ongoing impasse between O’Neill and Somare. It appears to have adopted a practical approach of working with whomever appears to be in charge of the state apparatus – which, since August 2011, has been the O’Neill administration. In fact, Peter O’Neill paid an official visit to Australia in October, where he was received by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had served as foreign minister until this March, has publicly stated that, while PNG continues to be a key focus of Australian foreign policy, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has advised the Australian government to take a low-key approach.

But after Rudd was replaced by Bob Carr – a former New South Wales state premier and investment bank consultant – Carr announced that the Asia-Pacific region would be his priority.

During an interview with another former leading Labour Party figure, Carr was reported as saying that postponing the PNG election would provide “a shocking model for the Pacific”. He believed it to be “absolutely vital” for the O’Neill government to hold the election on time.

Australia, Carr said, would be “placed in a position where we’d have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea. We’d be in a position of having to consider sanctions”.

Only a few days earlier, the Australian parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs had visited PNG and said he expected the election to be held on time.

The countries’ closeness – and Australia’s former colonial role in PNG – mean that Australia’s behaviour tends to be taken seriously in PNG. The response there to Carr’s remarks was immediate and strong.

The minister for foreign affairs and trade summoned the acting Australian high commissioner to Port Moresby to explain the Australian position. And the PNG high commissioner in Australia expressed surprise that Australia might use such “a serious international weapon” against his country.

 Political statemate in Papua New Guinea

Carr then rang his PNG counterpart, Ano Pala, to explain his remarks. He claimed to have been “misunderstood and quoted out of context”.

Pala seemed to accept Carr’s explanation, and emphasised the need to move on, as “it was not in the best interests of the relationship between our two countries”.

A leading member of Somare;s administration described it as “unfortunate” that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had “quickly embraced the illegal regime putting Australia into an awkward position today, where she must remain a silent spectator in the region as PNG’s political crisis unfolds”.

He therefore commended Carr’s “courage in breaking the silence and speaking out on the importance of PNG fulfilling its democratic obligations to its people by ensuring that free and fair elections go ahead as scheduled”.

He has also called on law societies and judicial conferences in other countries to denounce what he has described as “this most corrupt decision” – to make a law which enables parliament to suspend a judge accused of misconduct.

Thus has the continuing political impasse in PNG acquired an international – or, at least so far, an Australian – dimension.

The likelihood of further international comment or action in regard to PNG’s political situation will probably depend on the timeliness and orderliness of the 2012 national election. 

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