Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill formally resigned for a second time in a week on Wednesday (May 29) after losing the support of parliament amid waves of political turmoil in the South Pacific island nation.
The embattled premier was met with applause when he announced to parliament that he had resigned, a move that headed off an opposition no-confidence motion he was destined to lose. Parliament was adjourned and will reconvene to elect a successor on Thursday (May 30).
The stage is now potentially set for former treasurer Patrick Pruaitch, 54, to form a new government with new policies governing access to Papua New Guinea’s vast wealth of natural resources and recalibrate its foreign relations.
In a secret ballot held on Monday at the Laguna Hotel in the capital Port Moresby, opposition members of parliament had nominated Pruaitch, the National Alliance Party leader, as their choice for alternative prime minister.
Pruaitch defeated James Marape, the former finance minister in O’Neill’s Cabinet whose defection in April triggered an initial no-confidence motion that was withdrawn last week as the opposition redrew its positions.
Marape deserted O’Neill after the prime minister declined to consult him and his Cabinet colleagues over the signing of a US$13 billion liquified natural gas (LNG) expansion led by France’s Total and US oil major ExxonMobil.
The agreement is viewed as failing to offer communities loyal to Marape sufficient incentives, and proved the last straw for parliamentarians who have lost patience with O’Neill after eight years of his rule.
Now, however, there are indications Marape could swing back after O’Neill’s second resignation in a week.
“The current developments are driven more by the underlying frustrations with O’Neill’s administration over poor economic governance and unequal wealth distribution, rather than an endorsement of any one candidate that is put forward as alternate prime minister,” said Sebastian Liu, a global threat analyst for Asia Pacific with Healix International Risk Management Services, before O’Neill’s resignation.
“Corruption is prevalent in Papua New Guinea, and charges, including arrest warrants, have not prevented politicians from taking office,” Liu added.
O’Neill faced a 2014 arrest warrant that was subsequently disbanded, while Pruaitch has successfully stalled a so-called Leadership Tribunal into alleged misconduct in office for almost a decade.
O’Neill also has precedent for blindsiding his Cabinet, having done the same in a controversial 2011 deal he orchestrated to buy a 10.1% stake in Australia and Papua New Guinea-listed oil exploration company Oil Search, shortly after he came to power.
A recent report by the Papua New Guinea Ombudsman Commission ruled that O’Neill’s unilateral decision to borrow A$1.2 billion (US$830.6 million) from Swiss Bank UBS to finance the acquisition likely broke more than a dozen laws.
The deal, which is being investigated by Swiss regulators, resulted in Papua New Guinea losing several hundred million dollars in foreign exchange revenue after oil prices collapsed in its immediate aftermath.
O’Neill had announced he would resign over the weekend, triggering global headlines to the effect he had already stepped down, and a statement from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcoming the prospect of working with his replacement.
But on Monday, the prime minister bounced back temporarily by lodging an appeal with the Supreme Court challenging the withdrawal of Marape’s no-confidence vote, in the process creating space for MPs who had deserted his cause to come back into a government without the embattled prime minister at the helm.
It is not immediately clear if the remnant of O’Neill’s government will survive.
“The problem with his strategy is he doesn’t have the numbers,” said Stephen Howes, a professor of economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University whose research focuses on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. “O’Neill is unpopular and has lost a lot of trust. Most MPs want a clean break.”
Expectation was thus high on Monday as parliament reconvened this afternoon. Inside, members opened proceedings by joining together to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Outside, scattered groups of citizens crowded around car radios to listen.
With the prayer concluded, the opposition launched a surprise motion to vote out Speaker Job Pomat, an O’Neill appointee and a fellow member of the People’s National Congress party.
Pomat proceeded to demonstrate what an impediment he could be by stonewalling the motion to vote on his removal, as well as a subsequent attempt to vote on a suspension of parliamentary orders.
“If I were you I’d resign from the chair right now,” heckled the MP for Vanimo Green as the session descended into opprobrium.
One opposition MP forcibly prevented the Sergeant at Arms from bringing business to a premature end by removing the parliamentary mace, before order was restored and a resumption set for May 29.
Looking ahead, Liu suggested an opposition-led government might seek to review national mining and energy projects, beginning with the gas deal that was agreed to with Total in April.
“Should O’Neill remain in power, natural resources policies and projects will likely face resistance in parliament; key defectors hail from provinces rich in resources, including former finance minister James Marape,” Liu said.