Papua New Guinea deadlocked over rival leaders

AP News
Posted: Dec 15, 2011 9:31 AM
Papua New Guinea deadlocked over rival leaders

Papua New Guinea politics were deadlocked Thursday, with two men claiming to be prime minister, two governments saying they hold power, rival police chiefs maintaining the peace _ and no one sure who actually was in charge.

The power struggle in the most populous South Pacific island nation has exasperated the public and prompted union leaders to call on both men claiming to be prime minister to find a solution before the situation worsens.

The Supreme Court and Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio have backed 76-year-old Sir Michael Somare, who the court ruled was illegally removed as prime minister while getting medical treatment outside the country. But lawmakers loyal to his rival Peter O'Neill have passed retroactive legislation recognizing him as leader.

At a news conference Thursday, O'Neill said he had ordered police to take control of government offices, including the prime minister's office, where Somare and his followers were working. But O'Neill said he had no authority to issue arrest warrants for Somare or Somare's ministers.

Somare's spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Somare had been scheduled to hold a news conference earlier Thursday, but it was delayed without explanation.

"We are sick and tired of the selfish behavior by our politicians," said Michael Malabang, head of the country's Trade Union Congress, which represents tens of thousands of private and public sector workers across Papua New Guinea, a former Australian territory rich in mineral resources. "We don't want a total public service breakdown, and it is coming to that stage."

The standoff began Monday, when the Supreme Court ruled that O'Neill's election by parliament in August was unconstitutional and said Somare should be reinstated as prime minister. Lawmakers backing O'Neill stormed the gates of Ogio's official residence on Tuesday, demanding he meet with O'Neill. Ogio, who represents British Queen Elizabeth II _ the country's head of state _ said he'd decide by Wednesday who should be prime minister.

On Wednesday, Ogio swore in Somare's Cabinet. Somare insisted he did not need to be sworn in, because the Supreme Court had already reinstated him as prime minister.

But a majority of the country's 109 lawmakers voted later Wednesday to suspend Ogio and replace him temporarily with Speaker Jeffery Nape. Nape then swore O'Neill in as prime minister.

"(Ogio) has failed to swear in the new prime minister according to the advice of the Parliament," O'Neill told Parliament in proposing the motion suspending the governor-general.

Somare dismissed Ogio's suspension as corrupt.

"We're the government despite that fact Parliament is still going on," Somare told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio from the prime minister's office.

O'Neill's lawmaker supporters have occupied Parliament since Monday when the Supreme Court ruling was issued. On Wednesday they voted to appeal that ruling.

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One of Somare's first acts after the Supreme Court ordered his return to power was to reinstate former Police Commissioner Fred Yakasa and oust O'Neill's appointee, Tom Kulunga. Both police chiefs were present at the governor-general's home and held discussions with lawmakers loyal to O'Neill.

Somare has based himself at the popular Ela Beach Hotel, where he has set up a Cabinet made up mostly of ministers from his previous government.

"The only two people who can make a difference are Sir Michael and Mr. O'Neill," said Malabang, head of the trade union. "They have to calm down and come together for the sake of our people."

Somare spent five months in Singapore undergoing three heart operations before returning to parliament Sept. 6.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said Papua New Guinea had entered uncharted waters with the two men claiming to be prime minister.

Australia shares an important trade relationship with Papua New Guinea, which is rich in mineral resources including oil, gold and copper, and crops such as coffee and cocoa. Australia is Papua New Guinea's top export market, as well as its top source of imports. Papua New Guinea relies on Australia for fuel, food, cars and foreign aid.