After months of political wrangling and a constitutional crisis dating back a year, Papua New Guinea finally has a new Prime Minister. Peter O’Neill was sworn in by the country’s Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio after he was elected on the floor of the Parliament with 94 votes to 12.
A final bid by O’Neill’s chief nemesis — his former deputy prime minister and probable opposition leader Belden Namah – failed despite his insistence that he and not O’Neill would form a government.
It’s a political battle royale that has been watched closely by the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a political and trading bloc which PNG and East Timor would like to join. PNG wants to become the 11th member.
The financial and political benefits of being a part of a trading bloc of 500 million people with plans to become a fully integrated economic zone by 2015 are tantalizing but ASEAN is not totally enamored by the idea and the politics and shenanigans in PNG over the past 12 months have not helped.
Bloody riots had, at times, accompanied the political brinkmanship that at one point had left the country with two prime ministers, resulting in travel advisories from the United States and Australia.
Nevertheless a deal struck with the help of former prime minister Sir Julius Chan resulted in a coalition that included Sir Michael Somare who was ousted in August last year, sparking a crisis which culminated in a military mutiny in January.
Elections opened on June 23 and eventually had O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (NPC) securing more seats than his rivals, opening the way for talks on a coalition.
The inclusion of Somare, 76, went a long way towards ending the stalemate. Somare is the country’s longest serving leader. He became the country’s first prime minister in 1975, serving until 1980 and stood again in 2002.
“Sir Michael's participation in the new parliament and new coalition is a welcome signal of political reconciliation after the tensions of recent months,” Australian acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan and Foreign Minister Bob Carr said in a joint statement.
“The government looks forward to working with Prime Minister O’Neill and his ministerial team to further strengthen the close partnership between Australia and PNG.”
There were early signs that Narmah had accepted the result and had patched up his differences with O’Neill.
However, most observers – chief among them ASEAN – will take some convincing that PNG has finally found stability and any membership to the club of Southeast Asian nations remains some time off.
According to the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index, PNG sits at 153, several spots below Burma and behind Cambodia and Laos, all ASEAN members.