Impasse in Papua New Guinea

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Impasse in Papua New Guinea

For a while this month, Papua New Guinea was left in the extraordinary position of having two leaders. Why?

Papua New Guinea isn’t necessarily a regular fixture on the front pages of the BBC or the New York Times, but that changed this past week after a ruling by its Supreme Court left the country with two prime ministers. While there are signs that the impasse may have reached a resolution, it has still drawn attention to the way in which Papua New Guinea’s political system, supposedly based on the British parliamentary system, really works. 

The roots of the problem lay in a change of government on August 2. Long-serving Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare was in a Singaporean hospital when 48 of his MPs defected to join the opposition and elected Finance Minister Peter O’Neill as his successor. At the time, O’Neill tellingly stated that “the numbers speak for themselves; it doesn’t matter whatever court you go to.”

On December 12, the Supreme Court ruled that this transition was unconstitutional and reinstated Sir Michael. O’Neill refused to accept the ruling, prompting a standoff that left Papua New Guinea with two prime ministers, two cabinets – each sworn in by a different governor general – and two police commissioners.

That O’Neill appeared to have shrugged off the ruling demonstrated once again how decisive a parliamentary majority is in Papua New Guinea. The court was clear that the events in August were unconstitutional. O’Neill’s government has since passed amendments that retrospectively legalized the change, but at the time it was correct to describe it, as the local Post-Courier newspaper did, as “virtually a chamber coup”. In a way this is ironic; as prime minister, Sir Michael was frequently accused of using his control of parliament to shut down debate and fend off motions of no-confidence against his government.

The impasse has also shown the extent to which Papua New Guinea’s parliament remains defined by the competition for power between individual politicians. Political parties are weak and differ little in their policies. Instead, the government is formed of a loose coalition of individual politicians acting in their own interests and that of their supporters. Control of government spending is the key issue; since coming to power O’Neill’s government has proposed the country’s biggest-ever budget, while pledging to introduce free education and raise the minimum wage. These policies have bolstered the new government’s support, as seen when hundreds of people rallied outside parliament in favor of O’Neill on December 15.

The impasse seemed effectively over Tuesday, when Governor General Michael Ogio reversed course and backed O’Neill, apparently ending Sir Michael’s hopes (although further legal challenges may well be likely).

Whatever happens next, though, one thing is clear – the stakes have been raised ahead elections due in June 2012.

Neil Ashdown is an analyst and researcher for IHS Jane’s.