Constitutional Crisis Erupts in Papua New Guinea
December 16, 2011
A political crisis has erupted in Papua New Guinea following the Supreme Court’s 3-2 decision on December 11 that Peter O’Neill’s election as prime minister was unconstitutional. The court ordered that former prime minister Sir Michael Somare be reinstated because the office was not legally vacant when O’Neill was elected on August 2. The majority of the country’s 109-seat Parliament is loyal to O’Neill and has passed retroactive legislation recognizing him as the prime minister. In an unprecedented development, the country is now faced with two competing prime ministers, governors general, police commissioners, and cabinets. For the moment, O’Neill seems to have control of the government, but public and legislative support remains divided, and the long-term repercussions of the crisis are far from resolved.
Q1: How did Papua New Guinea’s political crisis develop?
A1: Governor General Michael Ogio swore Michael Somare and his cabinet into power on December 14. In response to the governor general’s actions, the Parliament voted to suspend Ogio and chose Speaker Jeffrey Nape as a replacement, which escalated the political crisis. Nape swore Peter O’Neill in as prime minister on the same day, leaving the country with two prime ministers, governors general, police commissioners, and cabinets. Somare’s claim to office rests on the Supreme Court ruling, while O’Neill’s relies on his reelection by the Parliament on December 13 (69-0) following the Supreme Court’s judgment. O’Neill has had extra police flown into the capital of Port Moresby to take control of government assets, including the government printing office, treasury, and government house. Somare’s faction is currently occupying government offices while O’Neill’s party remains in Parliament.
Religious leaders have called for compromise between the two men, but both continue to stand firm behind their claims to power. O’Neill has shown reporters a government document that calls him to be the country’s prime minister. However, a spokesman for Somare has said the document is not genuine, and there are reports that 20 to 30 armed police were guarding the government printing facility overnight. While the situation has remained peaceful, the intervention of the politically divided police force has caused fears that the crisis may turn violent. The military has remained uninvolved, refusing Somare’s request on December 16 to remain on call, and soldiers have been confined to their barracks until the situation is resolved.
O’Neill gave a press conference from the steps of the prime minister’s official office on December 16. He said his control of the public service, the Parliament, the police, the defense force, and now the official government office (where Somare had been encamped) showed him to be the prime minister, leading some to label the crisis “all but over.” While Somare still claims to be the legitimate leader, his education minister said he did not know whether Somare was even still in the country.
Q2: How did Papua New Guinea reach this crisis?
A2: Sir Michael Somare led Papua New Guinea to independence from Australia in 1975 and has served four separate terms as prime minister since then. He returned to the position of prime minister in 2002 and remained in the post until June 2011, when his family announced his retirement from politics due to ill health, after he spent three months in intensive care in a Singapore hospital recovering from heart surgery. Somare has since argued that the resignation was not his personal decision and announced his intention to continue in the post of prime minister following the Supreme Court’s decision in his favor on December 12.
Sam Abal became acting prime minister while Somare was recovering in Singapore, but he was removed by Peter O’Neill and the opposition party on August 2, when 73 members of Parliament voted to topple Somare’s government and install O’Neill as prime minister. Somare took the case to the Supreme Court when he returned to Papua New Guinea. The case ran from September 26 to December 12. During that time, Parliament passed laws legalizing its actions of August 2. The Prime Minister and National Executive and National Executive Council (Amendment) Act 2011 retroactively specifies that if the prime minister is absent from the country for more than three months, the position of prime minister becomes vacant. According to this legislation, Somare’s five-month absence officially removed him from the post of prime minister. O’Neill argues further that as a consequence of the legislation, Somare is no longer a sitting member of Parliament. Because neither man is willing to step down, Papua New Guinea has reached a political deadlock.
Q3. How have Papua New Guinea’s neighbors and other outside parties reacted to the crisis?
A3: Thus far, there has been little talk of foreign intervention because the conflict remains peaceful. Observers say that the country’s British Westminster heritage should make it well equipped to deal with the constitutional crisis. Defense Minister Stephen Smith of Australia ruled out intervention by his country, and his colleague Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called for calm on December 13.
Due to Papua New Guinea’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and the involvement of the governors general, it is possible that Queen Elizabeth II could intervene through the process of royal assent. Because the governor general is the queen’s representative, her assent is required to validate any appointment to the post. Thus, the queen’s backing of one or the other governor general would provide either Somare or O’Neill with the official support needed to form a government. However, because of her reluctance to become involved in the politics of Commonwealth countries, it is unlikely that the queen will make a decision until the conflict is resolved internally.
Q4: What does this crisis mean for the future of Papua New Guinea?
A4: The Westminster parliamentary system established in Papua New Guinea means that the country should have the institutions to deal with the crisis peacefully. The country’s respected court system and the fact that elections are due in July 2012 mean that the infrastructure required for a peaceful resolution exists. Nonetheless, there is a danger that if the decision of the Supreme Court is not upheld, it may lead to an increase in corruption and a breakdown of law and order in the nation. The Supreme Court has been considered the most respected independent institution in Papua New Guinea, so any conflict over its ability to resolve this constitutional crisis may have far-reaching and dangerous implications for the stability of the nation.
Constitutional expert Anne Twoomey says that the Supreme Court’s decision should have primacy, but she notes that whoever controls Parliament is likely to win in the end. Thus, whichever of the two prime ministers has the most support—in the Parliament and among the public—will retain the prime ministership. For the moment, that appears to be O’Neill.
The most realistic long-term solution seems to be a free election to establish a government chosen by the will of the people. Thus the elections scheduled for next July hold huge importance for the future of Papua New Guinea. Whoever has incumbency going into the elections will have an important advantage, but he will need to be prepared to combat the longer-term challenge of restoring law and order and fighting corruption.
Greg Poling is a research assistant with the Southeast Asia Program and the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Shearer is a researcher with the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.