Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) deposed prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, was reinstated yesterday by the governor-general, who in turn was promptly sacked by a parliament led by Somare’s premiership rival, deepening a political crisis in the resource-rich nation.
While Somare was being reinstated, former prime minister Peter O’Neill sat defiantly on the government benches across town in parliament, refusing to step down despite a court ruling he had taken power illegally. O’Neill toppled Somare while he was overseas receiving treatment for a heart ailment.
O’Neill says that he was elected by parliament and is therefore the legitimate prime minister.
After Somare’s reinstatement, the O’Neill-dominated parliament then sacked Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio and appointed parliamentary speaker Jeffery Nape in his place. Nape then swore in O’Neill again as the island nation’s leader.
The impasse, linked to political control of Papua New Guinea’s vast resource wealth ahead of elections due next year, has prompted calls for calm in the capital, Port Moresby, which has a reputation for street violence.
Parts of the city are ruled by raskol criminal gangs. Heavily armed police are protecting Government House, the Supreme Court — which ruled in favor of Somare on Tuesday — and parliament. Elsewhere in the city, life went on as usual.
“Despite the events of the last couple of days, I am confident that common sense will prevail,” Somare, 75, said in a statement.
“I commend the public for not following any camp and staying neutral, thereby keeping the peace in our capital,” he said.
Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga called on his officers not to take sides in the crisis, with reports that some police supported one camp over another.
“I call upon members of the [Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary] ... to be neutral, uphold the rule of law and remain focused on protecting and serving the people,” he said. “We must continue to do our duties as required without fear or favor.”
The greatest risk to PNG would be a breakdown in security forces, since both the army and police are heavily armed.
The reinstatement of Somare, who says he is fully recovered after heart treatment, is seen by many residents in Port Moresby as the most likely way to resolve the stand-off. The military has dismissed suggestions of a coup.
PNG has a turbulent political history, which has seen governments in the past toppled as lawmakers change party allegiances, but the nation’s “golden goose” resource sector has largely been left unhindered by the turmoil.
Many Papua New Guineans are fed up with all politicians, whom they see as corrupt and benefiting from a massive resources boom while the rest of the country struggles to eke out subsistence farming lives. Many would prefer early elections.
Somare holds only a minority of seats in parliament and needs to cobble together a coalition after most of his former government lawmakers deserted him in favour of O’Neill in August.
A vote of no confidence against Somare in parliament would automatically dissolve parliament and trigger an election. Elections are due in June, but early elections may eventually be the only solution.