The surprise election of Peter O’Neill as Papua New Guinea’s seventh prime minister on Tuesday could open up the country to a constitutional crisis, local media report.
In an historic and dramatic day in the nation’s 36-year democratic history, 48 government MPs sided with 22 opposition members on Tuesday to abandon acting prime minister Sam Abal, declare the prime ministership of Sir Michael Somare vacant, and form a new government.
The question now, the Port Moresby-based The National newspaper asks, is whether the prime ministership was vacant in the first place.
“Parliament appears to have jumped the gun by going ahead with the election of a new prime minister without a proper invalidation of the incumbent prime minister,” Wednesday’s editorial in The National said. “The question therefore is: are there two prime ministers holding office today?”
The man who lost his job on Tuesday seems to think so. Abal delayed by an hour the swearing in of O’Neill at government house on Tuesday by announcing he would mount a court challenge against speaker Jeffery Nape’s decision to declare the prime ministership vacant – the move that allowed the vote to install O’Neill to come to pass.
The man who officially held the office of prime minister until Tuesday, Sir Michael Somare, has been missing from the political scene since April.
Suspended from office for two weeks in March after being found guilty of financial misconduct dating back 20 years, Somare surprised the nation by suddenly departing to Singapore for heart surgery at the end of his court mandated sentence.
He tapped his then deputy, Abal, to serve as PM in his stead.
But in his almost four months as acting prime minister, Abal made significant enemies.
He demoted former foreign affairs spokesman Don Polye, resources minister William Duma and, during a brief turn as acting PM in December 2010, demoted Mr O’Neill from treasurer to works minister.
Those men organised the democratic coup against Abal and executed it with brutal efficiency in parliament.
Following Tuesday’s vote, each spoke about Somare with respect and O’Neill thanked him for the trust he had placed in them during his prime ministership.
Somare, 75, has made only one personal public statement since departing in April – appearing on national radio in late April to deny he was in Singapore for medical reasons. It has since emerged he has had three operations on his heart and by mid-June was, according to his son and fellow MP Arthur Somare, unable to communicate.
The issue of Somare has yet to be properly resolved. Sir Puka Temu, former deputy prime minister and an architect of the National Alliance, has called on the new government to prepare special legislation to retire Somare, the Post Courier newspaper reported on Wednesday.
His call came two days after Abal began a process of officially removing Somare from office.
On Monday Abal’s cabinet and the governor general, Michael Oglio, were handed a report on Somare’s health prepared by the political veteran’s personal physician, Professor Isi Kevau.
The plan from there was to have two independent physicians assess the ailing leader’s health before the decision was made to move on and, presumably, install Abal as prime minister.
But as the votes were counted on the floor of parliament on Tuesday, it became apparent Abal forgot the late 1990s tourism slogan that has since come to define his nation. It is “the land of the unexpected”.