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Political impasse threatens stability

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PNG is wrestling with its worst constitutional crisis since gaining independence in 1975 (Contando Estrelas/Flickr)

An uneasy calm hangs over Papua New Guinea (PNG), as a political impasse over the premiership continues after almost a week, experts say.

"At the moment, there is relative peace and order on the streets of Port Moresby," Ray Anere, a senior research fellow with the National Research Institute of Papua New Guinea (NRI), told IRIN in the capital. "There's a strong interest across the country to have the political conflict addressed within the due process of law as soon as possible."

But the potential for real conflict remains, analysts warn, in a country now saddled with two prime ministers, two police chiefs and two governor-generals.

"I'm very concerned that it could escalate, particularly because of the divisions between the police and the pressure to involve the army," Anthony Regan, a constitutional lawyer and fellow at Australia National University's College of Asia and the Pacific, explained.

Their comments come five days after the country's highest court ruled by three to two that Peter O'Neill had not been legitimately installed as prime minister in August.

Parliament voted him in after removing Sir Michael Somare, who had been receiving extended medical treatment in Singapore, and served as prime minister three times since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975.

Parliament rejected the Supreme Court's move, suspending the governor-general, who signed in the 75-year-old Somare, and reinstating O'Neill.


"This can spill over into a crisis which neither Sir Michael nor O'Neill may later reverse but which both will regret," a local newspaper, The National, wrote in a 15 December editorial. "People are getting more confused, uncertain, frustrated and angrier by the day."

Elizabeth Waugla, who lives in Port Moresby with her seven children, is worried.

"At present, we are going around doing our normal business but there is a feeling of uncertainty, anxiety in the air... you can feel it," said Waugla, who is self-employed.

"People are finding life hard, and they are blaming Somare and his government for their problems. They were happy that the government has changed, but if Somare gets back, there will be violence," she said.

At present, armed police are guarding state institutions and blockades have been set up around Port Moresby. Police authorities have barred any protests that may lead to civil unrest, said NRI's Anere, adding that the public, police and armed forces have thus far shown "great restraint".

And while the commander of the PNG defence force has said his forces will remain neutral, divisions among the police are troubling, Regan said, and tensions could flare if the army is pressured to take sides.

Should that happen, essential services could be shut down due to insecurity.

"This is the kind of thing that could spark off civil unrest in unpredictable ways," said Regan, who lived in PNG for 17 years and has worked there on and off for 30.

As the power struggle drags on, leaders on both sides will be tempted to mobilize popular support, he said.

On 15 December, about 500 protesters rallied outside parliament in support of O'Neill, according to local news reports. The same day, more than 150,000 union workers gave the rival leaders 48 hours to negotiate, or essential public services - including water, electricity and health - could be shut down.

Local NGOs also led a march in Goroka, the administrative seat of the Eastern Highlands Province.

History of violence

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on all sides "to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid an escalation of the situation".

The mineral-rich half-island nation, home to some 800 ethnic groups, about 6.8 million people, is no stranger to clashes, crime and other violence.

Political disputes around constitutional issues typically have been settled with limited social unrest, Regan said. But electoral violence erupted in the 2002 elections, described as the worst ever in PNG's electoral history, Anere said. More than 100 people were killed.

"At the moment, the conflict is between members of Parliament who are on opposing sides," Anere said. "The general public is watching from the sidelines but also urging both sides to resolve this as soon as possible."

PNG's next general election is expected in mid-2012.




This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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