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The bitter arm-wrestle for control of Papua New Guinea’s government has descended into chaos with a half-full parliament passing a budget, then deferring parliament for more than five months.
Prime Minister James Marape’s grip on power has been marginally improved by Tuesday’s events, but remains tenuous and the coming weeks are likely to be racked by private and public machinations over who can command a majority on the floor of the house.
Marape has called MPs who moved against him “constitutional rapists” and opposition leader Belden Namah a “political scumbag”.
PNG has endured days of chaos and instability at the heart of the government. On Friday, dozens of government members, including at least nine ministers, abandoned Marape to sit with the opposition and seize control of parliament.
The opposition then voted that day to suspend sittings until 1 December, the first opportunity to move a motion of no confidence in Marape. (PNG’s constitution protects new prime ministers against no-confidence votes for 18 months).
With parliament abandoned, over the weekend the opposition decamped to Vanimo, in the north of New Guinea, a city that was promptly placed under lockdown because of Covid fears.
But the country’s speaker of parliament, Job Pomat, declared the motion to suspend parliament invalid and insisted MPs return.
Parliament then sat on Tuesday – though with the opposition unable to return from Vanimo, the chamber was left with just 49 of its 111 members present. The brief sitting passed the Marape government’s 19.6bn kina budget (US$5.45bn) for next year.
Parliament was then adjourned until 20 April, ostensibly buying Marape five months before he can next be challenged.
The former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill – widely seen as deeply involved in the plot to oust Marape – attempted to obtain a stay order to prevent the parliament’s budget sitting, but Justice Makail in the Supreme Court refused to grant it.
An emboldened Marape – describing himself as a “Huli Chief” – told opposition leader Belden Namah to bring on any challenge.
“A Huli doesn’t surrender in a fight, you have to kill me on the battlefield and I will die with dignity. I would rather die in battle for the values I stand for than succumb to the call of a political scumbag.
“And if you do kill me, I can rest assure you, and your cronies, I have kindled a fire in the gut of many … who will carry the fight on to take back our country’s resources from the hands of greedy few elites who play this game under the pretext of people’s interest.
“Don’t ask me to resign, come and get it off me in the battlegrounds of Waigani [the suburb that houses PNG’s parliament].”
Marape loyalist and police minister Bryan Kramer said he expected dissenting government members to return to the fold. “The government is focused on running the country and expects members who initially crossed the floor to eventually rejoin its ranks to move on with the job of serving our people.”
East Sepik governor Allan Bird told the Guardian the sitting to pass the budget was legal, meeting the parliamentary quorum requirement of 37 members.
“The rules to pass the budget are by a simple majority of those present … we broke no laws today.”
Opposition leader Namah did not respond to requests for comment from the Guardian. He was meeting lawyers, but was losing numbers from his breakaway coalition. Previously dissident ministers, such as William Duma, have rejoined the government’s group.
An opposition spokesman said it was “seeking legal redress” to recall parliament sooner.
The parliamentary intrigue and government unrest exacerbates an acutely difficult time for PNG, as the country wrestles with Covid-19 lockdowns, a long-running dispute over control of the country’s second-largest mine Porgera, and an already straitened budget that has forced the government to seek emergency loans from Australia.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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