Political developments in Papua New Guinea in a historical context

Former PNG PM Michael Somare (left) with current PM Peter O'Neill (right) (Credit: PNG Blogs)
Former PNG PM Michael Somare (left) with current PM Peter O'Neill (right) (Credit: PNG Blogs)

In early April 2019, two senior cabinet ministers of PNG’s People’s National Congress (PNC) party (led by Peter O’Neill) resigned. This was followed by the resignation of James Marape, Minister for Finance, a senior PNC member, and Member of Parliament for the Tari-Pori electorate in the Hela province. He reportedly cited trust issues between him and O’Neill. Over the weekend of 27-28 April, another five members of O’Neill’s coalition departed. On Monday 29 April, two more PNC members left. Today, Friday 3 May, another nine PNC members resigned, including three ministers. The opposition leader Pruaitch, of the National Alliance (NA) party, has reportedly stated that they will move a vote of confidence when parliament sits on 7 May.

These are significant developments and it is worth looking at them from a historical perspective. Alphonse Gelu notes (also here), that since political parties first emerged in PNG’s political arena in 1968, PNG politics has been characterised by a complex multiple political party system. As noted here and here, this makes it difficult to understand PNG politics purely through the lens of the elections and political parties. Instead, politics seems to be defined by ‘big man’ politics, money, and loose coalitions which fuel persistent votes of no confidence (VONC), court challenges, or forced resignations.

PNG’s PMs, installed both via elections and via votes of no confidence, are shown in Table 1. Amidst all the instability, two eras stand out from Table 1: those of Somare and O’Neill.

Table 1: A history of PNG’s Prime Ministers

Note: Rows highlighted light orange are election years. The row in green is the year in which OLIPPAC was introduced. Sources below.

The Somare era

Table 1 shows that political leadership up to 2002 was characterised by a disruptive cycle of: elections, member trading, government formation, PM instalment, VONC, recalibrate the balance of power, form government, and repeat. To some extent, however, these were skirmishes in what was an era stewarded by Sir Michael Somare, the country’s first Prime Minister. For example, Paias Wingti’s instalment as PM involved him breaking from the Somare-led PANGU party, and Sir Rabbie Namaliu’s term as PM involved ousting Somare as the political leader of PANGU. Although other PMs and parties succeeded in gaining the PM position, their terms were relatively short-lived.

The Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC) was introduced in 2001 to try to curb what was, and is, regarded as an unstable political situation. The OLIPPAC adds to the complexity in PNG politics, it has been debated by senior PNG political analysts and subjected to a legal challenge. For example, early on, Orovu Sepoe highlighted that the effectiveness of OLIPPAC would depend on the willingness of political actors to engage with it. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled parts of it unconstitutional. As Henry Okole discusses, the Supreme Court ruling was fundamentally based on the fact that by regulating the behaviour of MPs the OLIPPAC violated citizens’ rights to engage in public matters through their elected representatives. Since 2002, there has been more parliamentary stability. This was also related to the increase in the grace period for VONC from six months to 18 months after elections.

Somare led NA to win the 2002 elections and his popularity in the 2007 elections  helped NA to remain in power until it began to splinter towards the end of the electoral cycle. Around 2010-2011, Somare fell seriously ill and during his absence Abal acted as PM. Growing public concerns about corruption led to political unrest that opened an opportunity for the realignment of parliamentary power. O’Neill took over the PM post amidst public unrest and Constitutional upheaval. Returning to parliament from his illness, Somare stepped aside as the political leader of NA, but not before consolidating the party’s position in government by joining the O’Neill coalition in a move that Somare reportedly explained as being to stabilise government and avoid disruptions.

Somare exited the national political arena in 2017. Reflecting his Melanesian leadership style, he publicly endorsed candidates from the two parties he had long been associated with, NA and PANGU, in his ancestral and political home, East Sepik Province.

The O’Neill era

A new era began in 2012 when O’Neill, leading PNC, came into power. This current period can be juxtaposed against the Somare era. Big man politics, money politics, and the ability to convene and consolidate alliances, certainly continue to shape PNG politics.

There are many similarities between these two dominant leaders. Both O’Neill and Somare are the only two PMs to have been elected at the polls as heads of their parties, that have won the most seats, and then been elected as PM’s on the floor of parliament. Both have subsequently gone on to serve their full terms and been re-elected in the next election. They have both served a consecutive seven years as PM. Like Somare, O’Neill has demonstrated the ability to hold his leadership of the PNC-led coalition despite controversy and governance challenges.

Without Somare, it is not clear how strong NA and PANGU can be. Both looked set to be part of a strong opposition coalition in the aftermath of the 2017 formation of government. However, since the political head of PANGU, Basil, joined the O’Neill coalition, the party seems to be in turmoil.

There are some differences though. Unlike Somare, O’Neill’s political base is set, and is bolstered by the political economy, including the presence of the large Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in the Hela and Southern Highlands region. In a previous blog, I discussed how O’Neill’s leadership to some extent depends on his ability to keep his Hela and Southern Highlands brothers happy, in the context of the LNG project and their own internal political dynamics shaped by culture and society. The failures of the Hela LNG to deliver the promised development, and the imminent Papua LNG project, seems to have recalibrated the power balance in O’Neill’s political home ground. As Scott Waide notes, the resignation of James Marape – both a PNC member and a Hela man – signals change and requires reading between the lines. Politician Garry Juffa notes that this move is significant for cultural reasons. Marape’s move is also significant in that it destabilises the heart of O’Neill’s power base: his leadership on home ground in the Hela and Southern Highlands arena, in the PNC party, and as the PM.

Other differences also mark the present situation, including O’Neill’s leadership of PNG’s position internationally. The Manus Regional Processing Centre is said to have undermined Australia’s ability to call out corruption in PNG, possibly reinforcing O’Neill’s ability to keep his power base happy. The APEC meeting, and the intensification of China’s interests in PNG, have also emboldened O’Neill.

Although political stability is good in itself, PNG suffers from corruption that seriously undermines the delivery of services, and in this regard the seeming political volatility in earlier years may have been an important mechanism in preventing power from becoming entrenched in the hands of a few big men. Marape’s resignation signals this concern about O’Neill’s growing power. His recent statement is telling:

“Papua New Guinea is a nation of 800 different tribes, a nation not to be dominated by one person, a nation not to be dominated by one sectoral interest, one business interest, we have institutions of government that must propagate sound policies and good outcomes, whether it is [on] the floor of parliament or whether it’s a decision that is reached in Cabinet.”

Only actions on the floor of parliament on or after 7 May 2019 will tell us how and if O’Neill will hold his leadership. The history of PNG politics suggests that understanding PMs both as big men and as political heads of political parties is important, as is understanding what constitutes and shapes their power base.

The table above draws from various reports which vary in their accounts of the election results, and should be interpreted as preliminary.  A number of these election reports and political literature are available online and span elections from: 1977 (also here), 1982, 1987 (also here), 1992 (also here), 1997 (also here), 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017.

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Michelle Nayahamui Rooney

Michelle Rooney is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, working for our partnership with the University of Papua New Guinea. She holds a PhD and a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) from ANU, and a Masters of Arts in Development Economics from University of Sussex, UK.

5 Comments

  • Nice article, Michelle, especially on power shifts in the southern Highlands. As you rightly say the ‘seeming political volatility in earlier years may have been an important mechanism in preventing power from becoming entrenched in the hands of a few big men’.

  • In my mind I keep thinking about Vietnam and Papua New Guinea (PNG). I ask myself how is it that Vietnam went through a shocking war in the 1960s through to the 1970s and yet she is way ahead in economic development (or is she?) and appears to be politically (as in governance) stable (or is she?). Papua New Guinea on the other hand has not been through a shocking war and yet is no where as advanced as Vietnam. What is it? Why is this so? Does the progress of Vietnam from shocking bombings, gorilla warfare to where she is today have more to do with the people of Vietnam (once thoroughly colonized and for a much longer period than Papua New Guinea) who are industrious and more used to just chipping away at getting ahead than some of the people of Papua New Guinea? I would really appreciate an article (or a series of articles) that looks at both Papua New Guinea and Vietnam – look at both these countries critically and without being politically correct to one or the other. I read too many articles on Papua New Guinea as coming out screaming of political correctness (PC). For the sake of Papua New Guinea be truthful and cut out the PC. Also include looking critically at both indigenous societies. If local cultures of both societies have to come in for critical examination, do so. No PC. PNG is now 40 plus years old. Surely, we should be further in Development than we are today? What are the real issues keeping PNG down? If foreign corporations and individual business people have to be critically examined, do so. Mercilessly. Does Vietnam face the same massive corruption issues as PNG? If not, why not. If so, how does she handle this? How does Vietnam handle Development and foreign corporations who almost always use the international market fluctuations as an excuse for low prices for a commodity once the corporation has got its tax free profit contracts in place from the host country? As I see it, PNG has major problems but briefly the 4 major ones are: 1. Gross political corruption coupled with lack of good and honorable governance (both formal and informal), 2. Large corporations taking profits out of the country during their tax free honeymoon period, 3. the lack of an industrious culture within communities and 4. Constitutionally and culturally locked-in landownership. Too simple? Probably. Then someone in the Australian National University (they are the ones that do most of the writing with huge doses of PC) or UPNG should get her/his act together and throw some intelligent light on these issues – most particularly for PNG’s sake. Australia should be glad of one important point:- PNG has not had a bloody political revolution in the streets. This is something that a lot of Australians said would happen within a few years of PNG Independence. Well it hasn’t happened. Thank goodness for PNG’s intelligence, this happens through the VONC.

  • Thank you so much to Michelle for a very good preview of the current political development in PNG.We are all looking forward to the outcome of VONC soon if it is going to be held. However, in developing economies where Governments want to make too decisions for too many things or projects without developing a very successful project and using that as benchmark (model) for future developments will result in many dissatisfied stakeholders which will give room for many unforseen events. Further, in PNG culture, the longer a person is a leader or PM, personal ego and self turn be at upper hand than policy and government systems. This is probably in line with cultural big man system which is not healthy for sustainable government and this development. What citizens need to see and appreciate is for governments to develop very good policies and use that to develop a very successful project (a major project) in respective sector with all stakeholders fully satisfied. There is no need to rush and it is very important to win confidence of citizens first. Then, use that as a model for future projects.
    Governments are changed and formed based decisions on projects and others. It is interesting to watch the political developments and see who will continue stand up during the VONC. Otherwise, trend will continue in this country.

    • Thanks,for the comments and am still believed that opposition will remove Mr O’Neill from the prime minister. According to the statistics of this country falls from 22.5%to 5.3%.If Mr O’Neill sitting as the prime minister all economic will be like the selling places and also thinking of selling the country also.

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