The political crisis in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has reached farcical new depths before elections later this month.
Peter O'Neill was elected prime minister by parliament on May 30 for a third time since August. It was a bid to undermine a Supreme Court ruling on May 21 that again reinstated Sir Michael Somare as prime minister.
However, the vote may be illegal, since parliament had already been dissolved before the upcoming election, Reuters said that day.
A correspondent for Radio New Zealand International said on May 30: “Papua New Guineans are saying this is just a total waste of time ... It’s just a big joke now.”
The Supreme Court ruling was part of a long-running feud between the judges and the government, sparked by the Supreme Court's first decision to reinstate Somare in December. O'Neill had been elected PM by parliament in August last year after Somare became critically ill in a Singapore hospital for months.
Due to the highly politicised nature of the case, two judges on the Supreme Court panel abstained from taking part in the May 21 ruling, AAP said on May 28.
Blogger Martyn Namorong told ABC Radio National's Late Night Live on May 22 the court ruling was not popular with the PNG public. “The Supreme Court has certainly lost its respect among Papua New Guineans, generally because when the transition happened on the 3rd of August last year, the majority of the Papua New Guinea population was behind the change in leadership.”
Since December, the government has waged a war on the judiciary, particularly Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia and Justice Nicholas Kirriwom over their alleged bias against the O'Neill government.
A law was passed to give parliament the power to suspend judges, which was criticised as unconstitutional as it undermined the independence of the judiciary.
The government escalated the feud after the latest ruling, arresting Injia on May 23 in an absurd scene where deputy PM Belden Namah burst into Injia's courtroom with police to charge him with sedition. Kirriwom was also arrested on May 28.
Many are looking to the election in the hope that it will end the turmoil.
Meanwhile, the government declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Port Moresby, the Southern Highlands and Hela to maintain “law and order” before the elections, Radio Australia said on May 26.
O'Neill said the state of emergency was needed to protect the controversial liquefied natural gas (LNG) project being built in those provinces by Exxon Mobil.
An academic report launched on May 29 said the LNG project had already caused serious social problems. The report said any economic “gains are at risk of being undermined if local disenchantment and simmering social tensions ignite the powderkeg Highlands region”, the Sydney Morning Herald said that day.
Conscious of the threat to Exxon Mobil's project, the PNG government has joined with Australia and New Zealand to bolster military capability.
Australia leased three military helicopters to PNG on May 18, as part of a new force “expected to comprise 10 military helicopters from PNG, Australia and New Zealand, plus a range of ... military transport aircraft”, the National said on May 21. “The new ... helicopters will be based in Mt Hagen and deployed to trouble spots in the Highlands.”