Basil: distrusted in life; praised at ‘belsori'
17 May 2022
| Academia Nomad
WAIGANI – Many tributes have been written about the late deputy prime minister Sam Basil MP, who died last week after a motor vehicle accident.
In this article, I will write about the impact of Basil’s death on the political party he formed in 2020 - the United Labour Party (ULP) - and its situation leading into the 2022 elections before the tragic accident that took his life.
The national outpouring of mourning and sympathy for Basil is second only intensity the reaction to the deaths of Sir Mekere Morauta and Sir Michael Somare in 2020.
There is a major difference though. Both Somare and Morauta were former prime ministers well into old age.
Basil, on the other hand, was young and had ambitions to become prime minister.
His was a life full of potential and taken too young.
The profile of the ULP has shot up astronomically since Basil’s death last Wednesday and the outpouring of sympathy has had an immense impact on candidates endorsed by the party.
Orange, the ULP colour is today dominating PNG social media. Those who have not heard of ULP, or didn’t care about it, are now very much informed.
On Monday, a multitude of people was waiting at the Jackson’s International Airport waiting for Basil’s body to arrive from Morobe his home province.
They were draped in PNG and Morobe flags and sporting orange shirts and hats.
We are now amid a three-day national hauskrai (mourning period) at the John Guise Indoor Stadium where people from all walks of life are coming to pay their respects.
The stadium is draped in orange. The ULP candidate for Port Moresby organised one of the events at the hauskrai.
This earned national TV publicity whilst other candidates for the seat were waiting for 19 May when the nominations open to start their official campaigns.
Getting a free national coverage during events like this is not unique. But in PNG, there’s an added layer because death and mourning is a very significant time.
It’s a time where arguments are resolved, mistakes forgiven and support comes from those you expect the least from.
How do these moments translate into political capital?
If you ever have the chance to speak to Dame Carol Kidu and ask about her election in 2002, she will tell you she won because of the belsori (sympathy) vote.
Out of compassion and sympathy for her loss, people supported Dame Carol and this included voting for her.
Her husband, Sir Buri Kidu, was the first home-grown chief justice of PNG. He was expecting to contest the Port Moresby South electorate, in which his Hanuabada village is located, when he suddenly died in 1994.
At the next election in 1997, Dame Carol contested the seat to fulfil her husband’s ambitions.
With a large sympathy or belsori vote, she was elected. Carol then built political support to be re-elected in 2002 and 2007.
In July 2012, she chose not to re-contest her seat and retired from politics at the end of her third term. (Link here to read more about Dame Carol’s political career)
With all due respect to the man and his family, Sam Basil had not been popular since 2017 when he switched from a leader of the opposition to Peter O’Neill’s government.
Since his election to parliament in 2012, Basil was a vocal critic of both the Somare and O’Neill governments.
He took a hard line against corruption, was applauded for it and was favoured to become the next prime minister.
This support was evident in the success of Pangu Pati in the 2017 election after he left his PNG Party. to lead the seatless Pangu into the election.
It emerged with 14 MPs, a respectable number in a parliament of 111 MPs and where no party had more than 30 seats.
Basil then tried to form government but failed, O’Neill’s People Congress Party with 28 MPs being able to muster enough MPs to form government.
But Basil later did the unthinkable. After briefly remaining in the opposition, towards the end of 2017 he took Pangu over to the O’Neill government.
It was at this point he lost much of his popularity among Papua New Guineans. Then, when James Marape won government after a vote of no confidence Basil switched again - and became deputy prime minister.
However his manoeuvring had not finished. In 2020 he attempted to remove Marape as prime minister. Again the manoeuvre failed and Basil went to the backbench.
It wasn’t for long though. He soon returned as deputy prime minister – brought back by the man he had sought to undermine, alongside James Marape.
Basil got the position he wanted but had lost the respect of many Papua New Guineans.
ULP itself was unpopular among Papua New Guineans for the same reasons.
Many people thought he lacked integrity for constantly switching alliances. This was the situation until six days ago when he lost his life in a car accident.
Now with much sympathy pouring in, Basil’s ULP candidates will enjoy similar success to that of Carol Kidu in 1997.
The belsori vote will increase the prospects of ULP candidates winning their seats.
And because of his untimely death, Basil is now being praised not condemned by voters.
Dame Carol Kidu represented Moresby South where Sir Buri Kidu's home village of Pari, not Hanuabada, is situated.
Hanuabada is in the electorate of Moresby North West.
Posted by: Geoff Hancock | 18 May 2022 at 09:46 AM
Thanks for this obituary note, Michael.
I am going to republish it on Ples Singsing - A PNG Writer's Blog.
Belsori voting may not be an influencing factor in Morobe where a party like Pangu is always a strong contender with the rural masses.
I get the impression that most people are respecting the sad loss because the late Sam Basil was a leader of other Papua New Guineans, so, yumi givim sampela luksave, soim pasin na stap wanbel bipo long eleksen.
And besides, he was a Morobean deputy prime minister, so respecting his loss is recognising the political successes of the province and its failings.
Other than that he was a young leader so there was hope that he would 'change his ways' for the better.
Posted by: Michael Dom | 17 May 2022 at 07:09 PM
Since he died, I'd been wondering when PNG Attitude would run a piece on Sam Basil, and also when someone would do a piece acknowledging the dramatic political defections that Sam Basil carried out in recent years.
This appears to be the first one to do that and, as far as I can tell, it is a very worthy piece.
The widespread outpouring of grief for Basil over recent days has shown me that, as unsavoury as his move to go in with O'Neill may have been at that time, it doesn't necessarily negate Basil's hard work for his community and his clear ability to connect with people.
A Morobean friend of mine would speak of Basil only in pejorative tones following the wash-up of the 2017 election, but is now being effusive in praise for the late MP in the wake of his death. Life is a bit funny like that, isn't it.
Never speak ill of the dead, as my otherwise fiery mother would say. Well observed, Johnny. Basil's death did present a problem for me. When I write obituaries, and that is far too often these days, I choose to be respectful but not gloss over the flaws. This can and does cause occasional bother but mostly there is appreciation. I felt I did not know Basil well enough to write a meaningful obituary and, what I did know, I did not feel like writing. So, apart from some shared tweets, I waited. Then Michael Kabuni obliged with a fine, well-balanced piece. PNG Attitude's contributors frequently get me off such hooks - KJ
Posted by: Johnny Blades | 17 May 2022 at 04:46 PM
Going to where and what will provide benefit to one’s electorate is so necessary in PNG politics.
That a politician does it is just a consequence, requiring skill and nerve to persuade followers to rephrase their verbal output.
Courage he evidenced.
Sad too that the very road he sought to improve was the venue of his passage beyond the grit of life’s journey.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 17 May 2022 at 11:10 AM