KATE LYONS | The Guardian
PORT MORESBY - Papua New Guinean politicians have chosen James Marape as the country’s new prime minister after a tumultuous few months in the country’s political life.
Marape, a former finance minister and sometime ally of the outgoing prime minister Peter O’Neill, was elected by MPs who voted overwhelmingly, 101 to eight, to make him the next leader.
Marape, the member for Tari-Pori in New Hela province was a key minister in O’Neill’s government and his defection from the government to the opposition camp in April accelerated O’Neill’s resignation from office.
For a time he was the opposition bloc’s candidate to replace O’Neill as prime minister, before he was beaten in a secret ballot to become opposition leader by Patrick Pruaitch earlier this week.
In a sign of the fluid nature of PNG politics, after O’Neill resigned officially on Wednesday, Marape and his supporters returned to the government camp.
The vote came after months of turmoil in the Pacific nation, which has seen opposing MPs camped out at different hotels in the country’s capital of Port Moresby, high-level defections between opposing groups, shouting matches on the floor of parliament, and finally, the resignation of former prime minister Peter O’Neill on the floor of parliament on Wednesday.
In his speech after his election on Thursday, Marape said he would make fixing the economy, which he described as “bleeding and struggling”, his priority and sounded a warning to foreign companies working in PNG.
“We will look to maximising gain from what God has given this country from our natural resources. This government is all about putting our country in the right place and taking back our economy … We don’t need foreigners to come in to take advantage of our forestry,” he said.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program said: “In terms of all the likely outcomes today, this is the one that signals most continuity of policy in Papua New Guinea.”
“You kind of wonder what the last three weeks have been about. It clearly was less about policy and much more about personality and the desire to see a change of leadership and to oust Peter O’Neill.
“Marape seems to have secured a vast majority of votes in parliament, so has secured a mandate to lead, but we’ll see how markedly his leadership shifts from Peter O’Neill in the coming weeks.”
O’Neill, who has led PNG since 2011, is only the second prime minister in the young country’s history to have served out a full term.
The election for O’Neill’s replacement was held in PNG’s parliament on Wednesday. Marape beat former prime minister and opposition figure Sir Mekere Morauta.
In a surprising moment in the day’s proceedings, opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch nominated O’Neill as a candidate for the job that O’Neill had resigned just a day earlier. O’Neill initially accepted the nomination and then later withdrew his name from the contest.
O’Neill initially announced he would resign at a media conference on Sunday, but opponents doubted the sincerity of this announcement after O’Neill then sought legal action to block the opposition from holding a vote of no confidence in him.
However, in a speech to parliament on Wednesday, O’Neill said he had visited the governor general that morning to tender his resignation, prompting a vote among MPs for his replacement on Thursday morning.
Going into Wednesday’s parliamentary session, the opposition claimed it had the support of 68 out of the country’s 111 MPs, which would have allowed it to ensure their leader, Patrick Pruatich, a former treasurer, would become the next prime minister.
However after O’Neill officially resigned on Wednesday at least 30 of the country’s MPs returned to the government bloc, including high-profile opponents such as James Marape and William Duma.
Bryan Kramer, an opposition MP who has been one of the O’Neill’s most vocal critics, said that among the opposition’s priorities if it came to power, would be to launch an investigation into O’Neill’s business practices, which have come under severe criticism, including his handling of a multibillion-dollar gas deal that opponents said was a poor outcome for PNG.
Pryke said an investigation into O’Neill is now “incredibly unlikely”.
“Marape and O’Neill, despite their disagreements over the last three weeks, have been very close throughout Marape’s political career,” said Pryke, who said it was likely that O’Neill would be appointed to Marape’s cabinet.
“Keep him close,” said Pryke. “Despite the fact he lost a vote on the floor of parliament yesterday, he’s proven himself to be a master politician.”
O’Neill came to power in 2011 in circumstances that were later ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court. Despite this contentious start, there was a wave of optimism when O’Neill came to power after he initiated an anti-corruption investigation called Task Force Sweep.
However, optimism in O’Neill’s leadership faded after O’Neill became a target of investigations over allegations he authorised payments of $30m for fraudulent legal bills. O’Neill denied the allegations and the government disbanded the task force.
Scandals surrounding his business dealings have continued to dog O’Neill throughout his prime ministership, and he was forced to step down after after high-profile MPs left his government for the opposition over the last month.
“It is important that I vacate this seat, so that we can be able to move on,” he told parliament on Wednesday.
O’Neill listed his achievements as prime ministers included the country’s hosting of the Apec summit last year and the expansion of the education sectors and the delivery of infrastructure projects. He also said his government was able to improve PNG’s global image.