Our northern neighbour Papua New Guinea remains in political crisis, with former leader Sir Michael Somare sworn in as prime minister this morning after the Supreme Court yesterday ruled the current government unconstitutional. But Peter O’Neill, who won a parliamentary election in August, maintains he is the country’s legitimate leader.

O’Neill’s parliamentary election occurred when former PM Somare — who has led the country on-and-off for more than 40 years — was overseas receiving medical attention for three heart attacks. Although O’Neill has the parliamentary majority, yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that Somare should be reinstated as leader as the prime minister’s position had not been officially vacated when O’Neill took control.

Both O’Neill and Somare continue to claim leadership of the troubled nation, although Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio reinstated Somare as leader at a ceremony at 11am this morning.

Police gunfire broke out yesterday when O’Neill and 60 of his supporters attempted to visit the Governor-General to have O’Neill sworn in as prime minister (no one was injured). O’Neill declared: “As parliament speaks today, I am the prime minister of the country, and Somare is trying to hijack it with some hooligan policemen.” As well as having two prime ministers, there are two police commissioners, two treasurers and so on.

A PNG expert from the Lowy Institute, Jenny Hayward-Jones, explained events to The New York Times: “We have two prime ministers at the moment, one of whom is claiming his legitimacy from the Parliament and the other one from the Constitution.”

ABC’s Papua New Guinea correspondent Liam Fox is live tweeting events today. He reports:

“O’Neill and co pass motion requiring Governor-General to attend parliament to swear in O’Neill as Prime Minister. #PNG”

“Meanwhile been told Somare’s ministers have been sworn in at Govt house. #PNG”

Tavurvur, a blogger and tweeter on PNG politics, summed up events:

“PNG’s political sandwich: a popular illegitimate government versus a despised legitimate government. This is the feeling in #PNG”

While it’s true that O’Neill has the public support, the Supreme Court was right to rule the move unconstitutional, says former PNG speaker Sir Barry Holloway. He told The Age: “Both sides of Parliament are beginning to posture in a very dangerous way. The PNG-style resolution for this — and the constitution suggests it — is for Sir Michael Somare to resign, and then for him or his camp to put him up again for re-election. Peter O’Neill and his camp then should put up a candidate for re-election, and there should be a vote within the Parliament.”

Papua New Guinea newspaper The Post-Courier urged its citizens — and police force — to remain calm in its editorial:

“We want to call upon all members of the Police Force to be neutral, uphold the rule of law and remain focused on protecting and serving the people of Papua New Guinea.

“We urged all policemen and women to remain true to the oath they swore to uphold the laws of our sovereign nation, and must be impartial, regardless of what has transpired in the court house or on the floor of Parliament.

“What happened last night was frightening, illegal and must not be repeated again. We urged the police hierarchy to launch a probe into the whole affair and deal with those responsible.

“They may have their reasons but using guns to hold elected leaders in fear, take over the official residence of the head of the state is not the way to deal with any issues that they may have. We also called on all the national leaders to be mature and responsible in their handling of the situation for any wrong signal can spark off a lot of problems among the citizens, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet.”

Peter Fray

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