Papua New Guinea crisis deepens as court orders MPs to return in blow to PM | World news

Papua New Guinea politics has descended into fresh chaos, with the supreme court throwing out the country’s budget and demanding parliament return to work.

Prime minister James Marape – just days outside the 18-month grace period afforded to new governments in which they can’t be toppled in parliament – faces a serious challenge to his leadership, with parliament instructed to resume on Monday.

But he has insisted he will not resign and has told his challengers “there is no vacancy in the office of PM… bring your vote of no-confidence on”.

The shifting sands of allegiances – and the dramatic reversals of fortune so far – make the next developments wildly unpredictable.

And the political upheaval, always unwelcome, comes at an acutely testing time for PNG, with the country still coming to grips with Covid-19 outbreaks across the archipelago, and managing a severely straitened budget.

Marape’s grip on power was challenged last month when dozens of government members, including several ministers, abandoned him to sit on the opposition benches, seizing control of parliament and suspending the budget sitting.

Critics have accused him of under-delivering on promises around corruption reform and economic development, and of leading a government of empty slogans such as “take back PNG” or promising to make PNG “the richest black Christian nation” on earth.

Marape was also criticised for failing to arrest those responsible for a massacre in Tari last year, in which 18 women and children were killed, despite promises that tribal violence and sorcery killings would be stamped out. His support for an abortive but expensive deep-sea mining project in the Bismarck Sea, and his attempt to nationalise Porgera mine, were also held up as significant failures.

He wrested back a measure of control when the speaker, Job Pomat, ruled the adjournment unconstitutional and ordered parliament back. Parliament came back – without the opposition, who were caught on the other side of New Guinea island in camp – to pass the government’s budget and promptly adjourn for five months.

But on Wednesday, the supreme court, led by chief justice Sir Gibbs Salika, ruled in favour of an opposition challenge that the budget sitting was unconstitutional, as was the decision to suspend parliament until the end of April.

The court cannot order parliament to sit, but “ordered that the speaker shall forthwith give notice to all members that the next sitting of parliament shall be on [Monday] 14 December at 10am”.

With the government defectors it has attracted and retained (some have switched allegiance back again), the opposition currently has 55 members in its camp, precisely half the 110 parliamentary seats.

With several absences for illness, it appears the opposition could move – and win – a motion of no confidence, ending Marape’s premiership.

It was not clear who would replace him. The opposition camp includes former prime minister, Peter O’Neill – a controversial figure but hugely influential in political powerbroking – and three former deputy prime ministers, Belden Namah, Charles Abel and Sam Basil (who abandoned Marape last month). It also contains potential leaderssuch as Patrick Pruaitch, previously the foreign minister. But an alternative prime minister has not been proposed.

O’Neill called on Marape to resign before Monday, saying he did not have the confidence of parliament.

Marape said he was “blessed” to have the support of 55 MPs “whose souls cannot be bought or sold… So bring your vote of no-confidence motion on, name our country’s alternative PM and let’s go on dealing with this matter”.

“The country deserves to know who is the alternative PM. Why [are you] keeping it a secret even from your own 55 members of parliament?”

If all members attend parliament and a no-confidence vote splits 55-55, the speaker Pomat, a Marape loyalist, will have the casting vote. It has happened before in PNG’s fractious parliament democracy: in 1992, speaker Bill Skate had to split a 54-54 deadlock, casting his vote for Pius Wingti.

But the margins will be razor-thin, and the authority of whomever is prime minister will be tenuous. But the constitution would afford a new prime minister an 18-month grace period during which a vote of no confidence could not be brought. Elections are next due in 2022.


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