- Papua New Guinea
The year 2012 and the events in the latter part of 2011 leading up to the infamous “political impasse” in Papua New Guinea (PNG) will go down in the annals of PNG political history for a number of reasons. Most significant, it was a year that saw the end of nine years of rule by the National Alliance Party–led government of Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare—cutting short what would have been a historic two full terms as prime minister.
These events led to the biggest constitutional and leadership crisis in the history of the country. The crisis put to test the thirty-seven-year-old constitution, challenged the principle of the separation of powers among the three arms of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), and shook the foundations of the Westminster system of government adopted by Papua New Guinea. Additionally, business houses and landowners around the Liquefied Natural Gas (lng) project area warned that if the impasse between the two groups claiming to be the legitimate government continued, it could negatively impact investor confidence and the economy at a time when the lng project was at its peak construction phase (Post-Courier, 19 Dec 2011).
Fortunately, 2012 was an election year, which meant that Parliament was dissolved and political incumbents had to re-contest their seats. This somewhat ended the leadership tussle between the Peter O’Neill and Somare factions, who were forced to renew their leadership mandate through the ballot box. This was timely because the political impasse could have devolved further into social chaos, as the stalemate was gradually politicizing and dichotomizing the different groups in the country who supported one faction or the other.
There was a sense of political insecurity and uncertainty when Somare’s family announced that he was not medically fit to continue as the country’s leader in 2011. Somare’s absence from the country for almost three months created a leadership vacuum despite his having appointed Sam Abal (the member for Wabag and minister for foreign affairs and immigration) [End Page 403] as acting prime minister. Somare’s prolonged absence led the majority in Parliament to declare a vacancy in the prime minister’s seat. Rifts within the National Alliance circles were already conspicuous due to Abal’s displacement of onetime Deputy Prime Minister Don Polye. Abal had political foes from within his own party and also lacked the authority and respect that was accorded to Somare.
Since Somare became prime minister in 2002, his style of leadership and many of his decision-making processes were perceived as dictatorial by the Opposition. This was demonstrated in the ways that some controversial legislation was bulldozed through Parliament without wider consultation and debate—for example, the Environmental Act, which among other things prevents third-party lawsuits against resource companies (see Kantha 2011, 491, 494–495), and the Maladina Bill, which proposed the removal of the powers of the Ombudsman Commission (see Kantha 2010, 456–457). The provision in the Environmental Act preventing third-party lawsuits was later repealed by the O’Neill-Namah government.
The announcement of Somare’s retirement from politics by his son and Member for Angoram Arthur Somare (Post-Courier, 30 June 2011)—seemingly without the knowledge of his father who was in the hospital in Singapore—provided an opportune moment for the Opposition to mobilize support and seize control of the government in mid-2011. However, the bond between new Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and his deputy, Belden Namah, was apparently one forged for political convenience. The two men had to sell their policies, boost their popularity, and secure the voters’ support to return to power after the national elections.
The rhetoric about free health care service was one popular election gimmick that never materialized during the twelve-month long government of O’Neill and Namah. Nonetheless, after being elected prime minister, O’Neill kept his word on free education. The Department of Education was directed to facilitate the dispensing of subsidies to schools, and when this was delayed and not implemented in a timely fashion, the National Executive Council in September suspended the secretary for the Department of...