THE TOWERING figure in post-independence Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, has been officially removed from office, and one of his former ministers, Peter O’Neill, voted by parliament to replace him.
Mr O’Neill, the son of an Irish-Australian kiap (district officer), promises to lead a government no longer based on “materialism and power-hunger”. He will not have long to live up to those ideals. An election, due by mid-2012, is usually the signal for parliamentarians to clamour for handouts.
Sir Michael’s departure is a landmark in the politics of the country of 6.7m. Widely known as the “Grand Chief”, he was first elected to parliament in 1968, led the country to independence in 1975, held the top job until 1980, returned as prime minister from 1982 to 1985, and again from 2002 until this year.
He presided over a mineral-resources and logging boom, and built his National Alliance into the dominant party in a fractious parliament.
But recently things have not gone his way. In April Sir Michael, who is 75, collapsed during a court hearing at which he was suspended from office for two weeks for failing to file financial returns.
He was flown to Singapore for heart surgery. In May Sir Michael’s wife and ambitious son, Arthur Somare, declared that the Grand Chief would no longer serve as prime minister, acknowledgment that Sir Michael was unfit to resume duties.
In the four months that PNG has been without its leader, the governing coalition has fractured. Sir Michael left his confidant, Sam Abal, as acting prime minister. He soon fought with and sacked several ministers, including Don Polye, a power broker in the highlands, and Mr O’Neill, the works minister and former treasurer.
The two crossed the floor, to join veteran opposition leaders. In a country where party loyalties matter less than ministerial portfolios, they took with them 48 defectors from the government. Meanwhile, in June the body of a young woman, the girlfriend of Mr Abal’s son, was found in the acting prime minister’s garden. The son has since been arrested.
The new prime minister represents a constituency in the Southern Highlands, where ExxonMobil and the state are developing a $16 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, due to come on-stream in 2014. Thanks to this, the country’s elite are awash with cash.
The Southern Highlands has a history of tribal fighting accompanying elections. Once settled with bows and arrows, conflicts are now fought with high-powered weapons, often acquired by exchanging cannabis across the Indonesian border a six-day walk to the west.
Mr O’Neill will have a hard task calming landowning factions out for a cut of the LNG cash, keeping a lid on the volatile highlands, and consolidating his grip on the fractious parliament in Port Moresby.
Source: The Economist, London