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Marape v O'Neill: Post-election battle looms

James Marape and Peter O’Neill seem likely to retain their seats but Allan Bird, the respected governor of East Sepik Province, is seen by many people as good prime ministerial material

O'Neill casts his vote in 2017
Peter O'Neill casts his vote at the 2017 election. Re-elected prime minister, he was toppled by James Marape in 2019. Now a bitter battle looms for the leadership

| Pearls & Irritations | Edited extracts

CANBERRA - Voting is proceeding apace in Papua New Guinea’s tenth election for the national parliament. A record of around 3,500 candidates are contesting the parliament’s 118 seats.

In the last parliament (2017-22) there was no female MP and despite campaigns to encourage women to contest this election, only 142 of the candidates are women, compared to 167 in 2017.

The election is being observed by domestic monitoring teams coordinated by experienced election watchers from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and by a Commonwealth Observer Group.

Of the 53 parties registered, many are small, a number have been created only in the run-up to the election, and a number will disappear soon after the election.

That is not to say, however, that, parties are unimportant. On past performance, around 10-20% of winning candidates will have stood as independents, though some of these may have received covert support from parties (who can only endorse one candidate per electorate).

No party since independence has won an absolute majority in an election and what happens after the election, sometimes even before the final results are known, is that the leaders of the larger parties set up rival ‘camps’ and try to cobble together a winning coalition by recruiting successful candidates from minor parties and independents before parliament meets to elect the prime minister.

The uncertainties in this process make prediction of the outcome of PNG’s elections somewhat difficult. However, the consensus seems to be that the country’s next prime minister will be either the present prime minister, James Marape, or his predecessor, Peter O’Neill.

O’Neill was first elected to the national parliament in 2002 as leader of the People’s Solidarity Party, of which O’Neill was the only MP and which merged with larger People’s National Congress (PNC).

Initially part of Somare’s governing coalition, the PNC was subsequently dropped from the coalition and O’Neill became leader of the opposition.

Re-elected in 2007 O’Neill became a minister in the Somare government but when in 2011 there was a ‘political coup’ against Somare, O’Neill, unconstitutionally and in defiance of two Supreme Court rulings, became de facto prime minister.

In the national election the following year the PNC emerged with the largest number of MPs and O’Neill legally became prime minister.

The O’Neill-led coalition of 2012-17 survived a tumultuous parliamentary term, with O’Neill facing an arrest warrant over allegations of corruption, and several no confidence motions, which he avoided by judicial manoeuvring and adjournments of parliament which culminated in an intervention by the Supreme Court.

He nevertheless re-emerged as prime minister in 2017 but his coalition fragmented and the PNC split and O’Neill was forced to resign in 2019, being replaced as prime minister by his one-time ally James Marape.

Marape was first elected to the national parliament in 2007 as a National Alliance candidate and served as a minister in the Somare government from 2007 to 2011.

He was amongst those who supported the political coup against Somare in 2011 and became finance minister under Peter O’Neill and a member of O’Neill’s PNC.

In 2019 Marape had a falling out with O’Neill and was named as the proposed alternative prime minister in a no confidence motion against O’Neill.

Marape subsequently left PNC, becoming a member of the Pangu Pati and its parliamentary leader.

When O’Neill was forced to stand down Marape was elected prime minister. His promises of a ‘change in direction’ and ‘taking back our economy’ were initially generally well received and the following months saw a steady flow of MPs from the PNC and other parties into Pangu.

But as new LNG (liquefied natural gas) projects and negotiations with international companies over mining agreements became stalled there was some backlash and challenges to his leadership.

In April 2020 a no confidence motion against Marape was filed, somewhat surprisingly naming O’Neill as the alternative prime minister.

Following a well-used strategy of PNG politics, Marape secured an adjournment of parliament, taking it into the last 12 months of the parliamentary term, when a successful no confidence movement triggers a dissolution of parliament.

This is not a situation which MPs have found attractive and effectively ensured that Marape came into the 2022 election as the incumbent prime minister.

Both Marape and O’Neill seem likely to retain their seats in Tari-Pori and Ialibu-Pangia respectively, and both Pangu and (to a lesser extent) PNC seem likely to have a significant number of endorsed candidates elected.

Given his recent political history, O’Neill might seem unlikely to gain another term as prime minister, but that might also have been said in 2017.

The main threats to Pangu and PNC are likely to come from the National Alliance, headed by Patrick Pruaitch (though respected NA member and governor of East Sepik Province, Allan Bird, is seen by many as good prime ministerial material), and the United Resources Party led by William Duma, the member for Mt Hagen.

The final results of the election are due to be handed down by Friday 29 July, though given the logistic difficulties associated with elections in PNG it is hard to believe that all votes will be counted and preferences distributed by then.

May book coverBy then, however, rival groups will be competing for the numbers for a winning coalition before parliament meets in early August.

Dr Ron May is an emeritus fellow in the ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs and a former director of Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute. His latest book, State and Society in Papua New Guinea 2001-2021, is scheduled for imminent release by ANU Press



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