Political Conditions in Papua New Guinea

While intra-parliamentary disputes, arising from unstable political alliances and leading to frequent changes in government, are a typical and seemingly intractable feature on Papua New Guinea’s political landscape, the nation has also experienced extra-parliamentary political strife in recent years. Between 1989 and 1998, the principal dispute, centered on the island of Bougainville, reached the stage of armed conflict.

Bougainville is the larger of two offshore islands that make up Papua New Guinea’s North Solomons province. In the late 1980s, landowners on the island demanded compensation from Australian-owned Bougainville Copper Ltd. for environmental damage caused by mine operations. A guerrilla force, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, or BRA, led by Francis Ona, initiated a sabotage campaign when compensation talks reached an impasse. The Papua New Guinea government then sent security forces to the area; the BRA countered by increasing its demands, including secession from Papua New Guinea. The conflict escalated, with the national government offering a reward for Ona’s capture or death.

Australia announced it would send forces into Bougainville to evacuate its nationals. The Papua New Guinea government negotiated a cease-fire in March 1990 and withdrew forces from Bougainville. The upshot was that the BRA took effective control of the island, whereupon the government imposed an economic blockade. Fighting continued between the secessionist BRA and the Papua New Guinea government for several years despite numerous attempts to achieve a negotiated outcome.

The scandal that was to bring down the government of Prime Minister Julius Chan erupted in early 1997. It was revealed that his administration had employed Sandline International, a subsidiary of Executive Outcomes, a well-known South African private army company, to conduct military operations in Bougainville. The regular army of Papua New Guinea as well as the general public opposed the use of mercenaries. Civic unrest over the scandal eventually forced Chan to resign as prime minister.

At the time of the Sandline revelations, the commander of the PNG Defense Forces, Jerry Singirok, detained the mercenaries and demanded their deportation. Public support for Singirok and his stance eventually led to the resignation of Chan, as noted above. However, Singirok was himself dismissed from his post prior to the dissolution of the Chan government, and in addition implicated for accepting bribes. Singirok was temporarily restored to his command during the tenure of the prime minister who succeeded Chan, Bill Skate. He was sacked again in August 1999.

Meanwhile, an interim government led by acting Prime Minister John Giheno served for a two-month period leading up to the scheduled national election in June 1997. The election produced a large turnover in sitting members of parliament. Numerous veteran politicians, including former prime ministers Sir Julius Chan and Paias Wingti, lost their seats, and many independents were elected. Losing candidates in the courts had challenged 88 of the 109 election victories. Some elections had been annulled, while most of the challenges were wending their way through the judicial process. National leadership emerging from the election came from a coalition of several parties, headed by incoming Prime Minister Bill Skate, whose government was to have a two-year lifespan.

The Skate government negotiated with all factions involved in the Bougainville fighting and achieved declaration of a cease-fire (the Burnham truce) in October 1997. This was followed by a more comprehensive truce, the Lincoln Agreement. The latter, which came into force in January 1998, called for disarmament and withdrawal of government troops from Bougainville Island. However, BRA leader Ona maintained his position against the series of peace agreements and refused to be a party to them. Nevertheless, formation of an interim government for the island proceeded.

BRA commander Sam Kauona and the vice-president of Bougainville’s interim government, Joseph Kabui, signed a permanent cease-fire in April 1998. The cease-fire has held, while parties have moved closer to the goal of a political resolution of the conflict. The PNG national government initially opposed, then accepted, elections on Bougainville for a provisional government. The interim government was formally commissioned in March 2000. Leading this entity were Governor John Momis and president of the Bougainville Peoples Congress Joseph Kabui.

Rebel leader Ona renamed his political faction the Mekamui National Chief’s Assembly, and his army the Mekamui Defense Forces. Ona continued to oppose the cease-fire, and to claim that local chiefs support full independence from Papua New Guinea. This claim is given limited credence by both other insurgents and outside observers. A multinational peacekeeping force under auspices of the United Nations Security Council was monitoring the suspension of hostilities. This military observer mission, comprised of contingents from several South Pacific nations, was scheduled to remain in place for the foreseeable future. The long-term genesis of the Bougainville conflict relates, in part, to islanders’ cultural ties to the nearby nation-state of the Solomon Islands. Bougainville and its sister island of Buka became affiliated with Papua New Guinea, not historically a close confederate, as a result of German colonization. The immediate trigger of the recent violent conflict was land damage from the Panguna copper mine. Papua New Guinea appears to have maintained political sovereignty over the affected province of North Solomons by means of a referendum on autonomy it has pledged to hold when the political situation quiets further. If the autonomy deal proceeds in compliance with Bougainville residents’ majority opinion, the Panguna mine would most likely remain closed. At one time, this operation accounted for 40 percent of PNG’s total exports and 19 percent of national revenue.

The decade of guerrilla war on Bougainville took a heavy human toll. Up to 20,000 people were killed, including rebels, national defesce force soldiers, and civilians caught in the crossfire. A concomitant blockade imposed by Papua New Guinea in an effort to deny supplies to the insurrectionists was also a deadly factor. Humanitarian agencies estimate that while food and medicine were prevented from reaching the island, several thousand noncombatants died.

However, the toll of the Bougainville war was not just in terms of human casualties. An international group of eminent persons said the decade-long war had ruined the country, which is still struggling to regain the initiative. The group said that the horrors of the war, which is still simmering and occasionally threatens to re-ignite, will hang over the country for some time. According to the group, the war also totally drained the PNG economy since all investment and maintenance expenditure by the defense forces were barely enough only to keep the war going. Outside the army, the war contributed to a degradation of the government services and also fueled inflation. It also said that corruption in the government and the society had grown during the war.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Skate battled scandals emanating from allegations of various improprieties; the most vivid was a broadcast videotape in which he admitted accepting bribes and gang involvement. At first evading calls for his resignation, he shuffled his cabinet and saw his coalition majority thin.

Ultimately, his departure resulted from his diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, announced around the beginning of July 1999. By recognizing Taiwan, Skate would eliminate all relations with China, which had been rapidly increasing its trade with Papua New Guinea. The Taiwanese engagement angered regional and domestic leaders with business ties to mainland China. Within a few days Prime Minister Skate vacated his post in lieu of sure defeat in a pending no-confidence vote.

On July 22, 1999, a new government under Sir Mekere Morauta was approved by a wide parliamentary margin of 99 votes in favor versus five opposed. One of Morauta’s first moves was to withdraw recognition of Taiwan and reaffirm the “One China” policy. Morauta then announced that his focus as prime minister would be to eliminate Papua New Guinea’s $845 million debt and help restore financial stability. He advocated large-scale privatization of public enterprises, notably in the utility and telecommunication sectors, to raise cash for debt liquidation. His China policy received a further boost when the Chinese government announced that it had invited Papua New Guinea to participate in the informal meeting of the leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, forum to be held in China in October 2001. The invitation was a reaffirmation by China of the reestablished bilateral ties.

While the Bougainville crisis was receding, another political storm with a similar cause – this one on the main island – was brewing. Environmental damage at the giant Ok Tedi copper mine, in Western province 18 kilometers from the Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) international border, significantly surpassed official projections. The mine opened in 1984 with an estimated operating life through 2009. The Australian firm Broken Hill Proprietary, or BHP, has a 52 percent ownership stake, with minority shares of 30 percent and 18 percent, respectively, held by the Papua New Guinea government and Inmet Mining Corporation, a Canadian company. The mine has generated 10 percent of Papua New Guinea’s GNP, and 20 percent of its export revenues. However, tailings and waste from the mine have caused widespread land degradation, with the potential to become even more extensive, in the nation’s largest watershed.

In response, a movement of local residents, supported by international environmental organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, has demanded closure of the mine. Somewhat dampening the impact of this opposition is the low population density of the area and the fact that some local residents favor continued mining as a source of jobs and funds for public services and economic development. For its part, the government has ruled out closing down Ok Tedi before the originally planned date. It is difficult to see how it could replace the mine’s positive cash flow impact in the short term. At such, experts were pondering a set of waste disposal alternatives that might permit mining activity with less environmental damage than the present direct dumping of 85 million tons of tailings per year. In any case, the area is ill-prepared for long-term economic self-sufficiency, whether Ok Tedi were to shut down now or at its initially projected phase-out in 2009. To date, only small-scale efforts to develop an alternative economic base, supported mostly by agricultural and livestock operation, have been undertaken.

In March 2000, a political crisis for the Morauta government broke when it became known that the nation’s largest social security account, the Provident National Fund, or PNF, actually had only half as much money as had been stated. Diversion of part of the difference into general revenues was confirmed, and allegations of embezzlement were raised. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Morauta agreed to a full investigation, which won widespread support. The PNF supported pensions for government employees and unionized workers at large firms. The shortfall may give them no option but to accept a cut in benefits.

In 2001, the Morauta administration underwent some severe political storms. In March 2001, soldiers of the PNG army went on a mutiny in protest against the government plan to halve the size of the army. The plan was recommended by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, or CEPG, who was reviewing the country’s defense forces for purpose of reforms. The CEPG also recommended that the country needed a properly-funded professional force as well as a more efficient one. According to CEPG, the oversize of the army had caused most of the defense budget to go to salaries, with virtually nothing left for training, operations, or even food, fuel and clothing. Accordingly, it recommended a voluntary release scheme, saying that from discussions with the army, it was sure that there would be plenty of volunteers to leave the defense forces. It was this recommendation that led to the mutiny in the army.

The rebel soldiers seized arms from the country’s main armory to press their demands for the government to give up the plan. The situation remained tense for nearly two weeks and the soldiers gave up only when Prime Minister Morauta gave an assurance that the plan would not be implemented, and granted amnesty to the soldiers who participated in the mutiny.

As reform for the armed forces has been among Prime Minister Morauta’s economic restructuring program, the mutiny halted the reform. Making matters worse was the fact that it triggered widespread opposition to the prime minister’s other economic reform plans, especially plans of privatization of government assets. In a bid to revive PNG’s ailing economy, the World Bank and the IMF had promised $210 million in loans conditional on measures of privatization of government assets like national airline Air Niugini, the telephone company Telikom and the PNG Banking Corperation. However, these privatization plans were strongly opposed by students as well as workers of government owned businesses.

In late June, only a few months after the army mutiny, the worst protest since independence erupted in the capital Port Moresby. Six days of student protests against economic reforms turned violent, with four students being killed and 18 injured. In order to prevent the incident from developing, Prime Minister Morauta put Port Moresby under curfew that ran until July 10.

While the privatization plans were postponed as a result of the student protests, the global economic slowdown and PNG’s domestic problems, such as rampant crime, have also put the commercial viability of the country’s privatization program in doubt. In late July, the central bank announced a severe downgrading of the country’s growth forecast for 2001, attributing this to lower activity expected in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and mineral sectors. The central bank predicted that the economic activity of the country would not pick up again for another year. This would undoubtedly worsen the already severe unemployment situation in PNG, where about 40 percent of the working-age population have been looking for jobs.

Despite frustrations in economic reforms, progress has been made in the government talks with Bougainville for its autonomy. In May 2001, during the talks between the PNG government and the regional government of Bougainville, the PNG government announced that it would give an as yet unspecified amount as a one-time establishment grant to the regional government of Bougainville. During the talks in June, the last major obstacle to reaching a comprehensive agreement on autonomy of Bougainville was cleared – Bougainville would have its own criminal laws, which could be the first step towards Bougainville getting its own police and prisons.

Then on August 31, the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed between the PNG government and the regional government of Bougainville, paving the way for an autonomous government in the war-torn province. The agreement provides for disarmament, the creation of a Bougainville constitution leading to autonomous government, and an eventual referendum on independence. The PNG government was to pass the necessary amendments regarding Bougainville before the agreement could be implemented. Prime Minister Morauta stressed that only Parliament would have the final say on Bougainville. While legislation passed through the preliminary stages, in March 2002, parliament refused to ratify the Bougainville amendments as many lawmakers were dissatisfied with the disarmament program.

The near-unanimity of Morauta’s support when he took office was expected to be transitory, and the prime minister subsequently altered the composition of his cabinet to defuse political pressures against him. As in the past, the terms and administration of some business concessions were the targets of government critics. At the time of the formation of the government, doubts were raised about its longevity, as is so often the case in Papua New Guinea politics, the ability of the ruling coalition to hold together until the next scheduled election (2002) was uncertain.

In May 2001, Morauto’s administration was challenged when opposition leaders alleged that the government had used development funds in order to induce Members of Parliament to join hands with the ruling party. These charges notwithstanding, Morauta’s position was strengthened when a small party in the parliament merged with his PDM in June 2001, giving the PDM a clear majority in the parliament. This was the first time that any government in PNG has enjoyed a parliamentary majority, however small.

These political developments aside, the government’s economic reforms have had some notable effects as well. In March 2002, mutinous soldiers took control of an armory and burned three buildings, in protest of the government’s economic reform plan, which included decreased military spending, privatization, and structural adjustments at the behest of international aid agencies. The soldiers gave the government a thirteen-point petition with demands that included a governmental halt on the plan to downsize the defense force as part of its economic reform; the immediate dismissal of the prime minister; privatization to be stopped; and the expulsion of the World Bank, IMF and Australia, all of whom the soldiers believed to be exerting too much influence over the handling of the nation’s social, economic and mining issues. These were virtually the same demands made by the 2001 mutiny. This time, though, the government was less tolerant of mutiny and the military overtook the rebel soldiers before the government conceded to any aspect of the petition.

Privatization of state-owned entities began with the purchase of the state-owned Papua New Guinea Banking Corporation (PNGBC) by the Bank of South Pacific (BSP). Despite criticism and violence that had recently ensued, Prime Minister Morauta continued to go on with reforms. Also the PNG was preparing for the 2002 local and national elections scheduled to take place in June.

There were 43 political parties registered for the election. During the electoral campaign, Prime Minister Morauta highlighted the success of his government’s reforms, most notably by reducing the country’s inflation rate in 2002. For its part, the opposition highlighted the fight against corruption, mismanagement and the misuse of public monies.

Parliamentary elections were held in June 2002, although voting in the Southern Highlands was not completed until 2003. The elections themselves held the dubious distinction of being the worst ever, according to independent observers. Violence, the deaths of at least 100 people, and rife vote-rigging characterized the elections. Indeed, there were reports of stolen ballot boxes, multiple voting, incomplete electoral rolls, inclusions of fictitious or dead individuals on other electoral rolls, not to mention the inflation of some voting rosters as much as 300 percent. As well, a lack of funding for transport and personnel made it impossible for electoral officials to reach remote areas where about twenty-five percent of the voters live.

With most results tallied (the situation in the Southern Highlands notwithstanding), Morauta’s party had won only 12 seats. The National Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Somare, secured 15 seats. With the support of seven other parties, Somare was able to form a coalition. Then, in late July, Governor General Silas Atopare asked Somare to form a new government. Allan Marat became the deputy prime minister. A new cabinet was presented in August 2002.

In 2003, more than 200 Australian police were to deployed to Papua New Guinea, after the signing of a bilateral agreement. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s largest recipient of aid and with the country often suffering from political and economic strife, John Howard’s government in Australia wanted to ensure greater accountability in regard to how the aid money was spent. Thus, despite initial objections from Prime Minister Somare, 200 Australians will work to improve public administration in Papua New Guinea.

In 2003, despite the previous Prime Minister’s reform attempts, a report was released describing Papua New Guinea as being precipitously close to crisis conditions, with decreasing living standards, rampant corruption and endemic mismanagement.

Australia’s intensified interest in other countries in the world, such as Papua New Guinea, has come as a consequence of recent acts of global terrorism. Australia’s prime minister has cautioned that countries in crisis are potential breeding grounds for terrorists. In this regard, in mid-2004, Australia’s government signed a concord providing for the deployment of 300 police and civil servants to be sent to Papua New Guinea to assist in the fight against crime and corruption.

In June 2007, voters in Papua New Guinea began going to the polls to cast ballots in the country’s general election. The election took several weeks — lasting until mid-July 2007 — in a phased voting process intended to ensure the inclusion of people in the most remote parts of the country. Thousands of police and military troops were deployed across the country to prevent an outbreak of violence and also to foreclose the rampant irregularities that plagued the voting process in the 2002 elections, and bestowing the dubious distinction as the worse elections ever, as discussed above.

By August 2007, the ballots had been counted and Prime Minister Michael Somare’s National Alliance Party had won 29 of the 109 parliamentary seats at stake. Together with independent allies and smaller parties, it claimed to have control over 55 seats in parliament, and thus had a stable majority to form a government. As such, the country’s head of state, Governor-General Paulias Matane, called on Somare to form a new coalition government. Somare responded saying, “I accept the invitation to form the next government of Papua New Guinea.” Somare also spoke on behalf of his party, conveying his gratitude to fellow citizens for again placing their confidence in the National Alliance Party.

Somare was set to be formally reclaim his position as prime minister on Aug. 13, 2007 following a majority vote in parliament. Prime Minister Michael Somare appointed a caretaker government upon reclaiming his post. He was set to appoint his full cabinet on Sept. 18, 2007.

The year 2007 was also marked by scandal involving the prime minister’s intervention on the former Attorney-General of Solomon Islands Julian Moti’s Inquiry. Moti was a close associate of the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare. He was arrested in Papua New Guinea in 2006 under an Australian extradition request. At issue were child sex charges that allegedly occurred in Vanuatu in 197. Moti reportedly was able to vitiate existing bail regulations and flown out of the country and back home to the Solomon Islands on an aircraft belonging to the Papua New Guinea Defense Force. The situation sparked a diplomatic conflict with Australia, even leading to the outraged Australian government from banning Papua New Guinea officials from entering Australia. Despite denying that he authorized the flight, Somare has nonetheless been implicated in the international scandal.

In May 2008, Prime Minister Michael Somare’s government was mired in something of a financial scandal when it was reported that three key government players met officials involved in the matter, which stretched to Taiwan. At issue was the apparent disappearance of the $US30 million, which had been intended for development aid in Papua New Guinea. There were reports that Taiwanese middlemen had been engaged to ensure that the aid money went to Papua New Guinea, presumably as a means of offsetting its ties with mainland China, and even augmenting the Taiwanese case for sovereign recognition. These reports gained credence when it was revealed that Planning Minister Paul Tiensten, parliamentary public accounts committee chairman Timothy Bonga, and attorney Florian Gubon, acknowledged meeting Taiwanese officials in Taipei in 2006.

The situation resulted in resignations of senior Taiwanese politicians, including Vice Premier Chiou I-jen. At home in Papua New Guinea, leading figures, including opposition politician Mekere Morauta, former treasurer Bart Philemon, and former prime minister Julius Chan, claimed that the scandal led back to Somare. As such, Morauta called on Somare to resign since it was clear that he must have endorsed the meeting. There were also calls the resignation of all the officials involved in what came to be known as the “cash for recognition” scandal with Taiwan. Nevertheless, Somare was successful in getting the National Court to halt an investigation of his finances.

In 2009, the opposition — fueled to some degree by rising public discontent — was keen to bring down the government. At the forefront of the movement to take on the government, with its legacy of recent scandals, was former Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, who has been viewed as something of a reformist, as well as former Treasurer and Finance Minister Bart Philemon. As of the start of 2010, Prime Minister Somare remained in power.

Note: Somare holds the distinction of being the longest serving head of government in Papua New Guinea. He has began to suggest that he is considering retirement from public office.

On January 14, 2011, Papua New Guinea’s parliament elected Michael Ogio as the new governor-general of the country. Ogio won the internal election with 65 votes against his rival Pato Kakeraya who garnered 23 votes. The vote came after a boisterous exchange in parliament, some of it focused on whether a sitting member of cabinet could run for the post of head of state. Now, Ogio was set to resign from his cabinet position and would be sworn in as governor-general when the parliament resumed operations on May 10, 2011. The developments related to the election of a new governor-general or head of state came less in late 2010, in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling that re-installation of Paulias Matane as governor-general in mid-2010 was both invalid and unconstitutional. The Supreme Court thus ordered members of parliament to reconvene for a fresh presidential vote before the end of January 2011.

In September 2011, Papua New Guinea was being rocked by political turbulence as a result of a series of controversial developments involving former head of government — Sir Michael Somare.

The situation began on December 13, 2010 when Prime Minister Somare announced that he would “voluntarily step aside” to face a pending leadership tribunal, focused on allegations that he failed to submit his financial returns. Less than a month later, though, a statement was issued noting that the prime minister had resumed office after being on holiday. The announcement gave no reference to the leadership tribunal. On January 18, 2011, Prime Minister Michael Somare, who stepped away from office in late 2010 to face a leadership tribunal, resumed office claiming he was away on holidays.

By March 2011, the findings of the leadership tribunal were dominating the prime minister political fate. Indeed, on March 25, 2011, Sir Michael Somare was suspended from office for two weeks after being found guilty of 13 charges of misconduct. At issue were the aforementioned charges that the prime minister failed to submit financial returns for as many as two decades. The decision by a three-person tribunal in the capital of Port Moresby was handed down after deliberations that lasted two weeks. While two tribunal members ruled in favor of suspension, the third member of the tribunal had advocated the prime minister’s dismissal from office. The pro-suspension chairman, Roger Gyles, argued that there was “no serious culpability warranting dismal.” However, the dissenting tribunal member said that the prime minister’s nonchalant attitude towards the charges showed “disregard bordering on disdain” for the constitutional obligations of the office of the prime minister.

For his part, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare may well be regarded as the ultimate political survivor in the region. In power as the head of government of Papua New Guinea for 40 years, the opposition forces have tried as recently as 2009 to bring down Somara’s government. This latest case showed Somare’s resilience even in the face of criticism. Following the announcement of the decision by the tribunal to suspend him for two weeks, Prime Minister Somare addressed cheering crowds and to apologize for his “administrative oversight,” saying: “As a leader, I take full responsibility for failing to fulfill certain administrative aspects of my duties and responsibilities of leadership by submitting several late and incomplete returns to the Ombudsman Commission.” He said that he looked forward to his two week suspension as an opportunity to spend “quality time” with his family.

A month later in April 2011, Somare was dealing with heart health complications. Two months later in June 2011, the Somare family announced Sir Michael Somare’s retirement as prime minister and his exit from the politic scene. Sir Michael Somare remained hospitalized in intensive care at the time in Singapore and clearly could not be consulted on this announcement. By the start of September 2011, Sir Michael Somare was declaring that he remained the head of government and was returning home to resume his post. In a signed statement that was published by Agence France Press, Somare asserted: “Let me be clear. I am ready, willing and able to complete my term as the only legally elected prime minister of Papua New Guinea.” But with the the prime ministership ruled vacant by a majority vote in parliament, and Somare disqualified from parliament due to absence at consecutive parliamentary sittings, Peter O’Neill — a former finance minister — was chosen to be the interim prime minister. Given the constested political landscape, Sir Michael Somare was vowing to challenge his disqualification from parliament.

The political chaos did not end with this promise by Somare. In government itself, members of the National Alliance (NA) were expelled by the national executive. The move appeared to be oriented toward blaming the NA for Somare’s removal from office and punishing them for joining the O’Neill alliance; however, Finance and Planning Minister Polye maintained that Somare’s removal was not political but due to the law.

In December 2011, the Supreme Court in Papua New Guinea invalidated the position of Peter O’Neill as prime minister and reinstated Michael Somare in that post.

Months earlier, long-serving Prime Minister Somare had been dealing with heart health complications, which led to claims by his family that he had retired from power. But Somare himself had never made that claim and, once restored to health, he declared that he remained the head of government and was returning home to resume his post. With the prime ministership ruled vacant by a majority vote in parliament, and Somare disqualified from parliament due to absence at consecutive parliamentary sittings, Peter O’Neill — a former finance minister — was chosen to be the interim prime minister.

While the governor general backed O’Neill’s initial claim on the position of head of government, this ruling by the Supreme Court changed the political landscape significantly, even leading Governor General Michael Ogio to reverse his stance and stand in solidarity with the court.

The political power struggle was not expected to end quickly, however, as O’Neill was refusing to accept the court ruling and insi

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