The crisis embroiling the government of Papua New Guinea has taken new turns as sections of the establishment struggle for power. Public outrage has grown against new laws that undermine the country's constitution.
Just days after pledging it would not use the new powers of the Judicial Conduct Act to suspend judges, the government of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill suspended Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia and Justice Nicholas Kirriwom on April 4.
The suspensions were part of a campaign against judges that began after the Supreme Court ruled in December that O'Neill's government was illegitimate and that former PM Sir Michael Somare should return to office. Somare had been critically ill in a Singapore hospital for months when O'Neill was elected PM by parliament in August last year. Parliament passed a law in December legalising O'Neill's government, undermining the court decision.
Injia was the head of the Supreme Court panel that ruled against O'Neill. Kirriwom had later written a memo to colleagues calling on them to fight back against government attacks.
They did so on April 12 when the Supreme Court upheld an application by the government of Morobe province for a stay on the law, in effect reinstating the judges, Radio Australia said that day.
O'Neill struck back on April 17 by introducing an amendment to the Judicial Conduct Act that would criminalise any judge who ignores a suspension, with a penalty of seven years in jail and loss of retirement benefits, Australia Network News said that day. Any judge who presided with a suspended judge would face the same penalty.
In another anti-democratic move, parliament voted on April 5 to delay elections scheduled for June by six months. The government blamed incomplete electoral roles and “instability” in the Southern Highlands area for the delay.
A protest of 10,000 people at John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby on April 10 demanded the parliament reverse the delay of elections and attacks on judges. The protest was led by students from the University of Papua New Guinea under the banner of “Occupy Waigani”.
Activist and blogger Martyn Namorong said on April 11 that Port Moresby was shut down for the protest. It was addressed by unionists and lawyers who said the government's actions were unconstitutional.
O'Neill arrived midway through the rally and addressed the crowd, PNG Attitude said on April 10. The crowd booed and chanted “rausim” (rescind) as he entered with other members of the government.
O'Neill told the crowd that elections would take place in June as scheduled and that parliament did not have the power to direct the electoral commissioner. He also said the Judicial Conduct Act would be repealed if Injia and Kirriwom stepped down voluntarily.
The prime minister's support for June elections revealed a split with his deputy Belden Namah, who was the architect of the vote for the delay.
The matter was complicated again when a dispute arose between Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen and parliamentary speaker Jeffery Nape over whether parliament has the power to change the election schedule, which is set out in the constitution. Radio New Zealand International said on April 19 that many MPs were continuing to push Trawen for a delay.
Reaction to attacks
The government's anti-democratic moves are a reaction to attempts to bring it down by sections of PNG's ruling class, who wish to see Somare return to power. Somare is the biggest figure in PNG politics, serving three terms as PM in a career spanning more than 35 years. However, his popularity declined in this last term due to rising corruption and nepotism.
Somare was behind a failed military coup against O'Neill in January, showing the lengths to which he is willing to go to regain power.
PNG Attitude said on April 16 that O'Neill's government was initially popular, but “they destroyed their own popularity and credibility as fast as they gained it”.
Somare's unpopularity with the public and MPs means even if he regained office, his long-term prospects are weak. However, due to O'Neill's moves, Somare now has space to frame himself as a democrat, and could campaign on a platform of “restoring the constitution”.
The coup attempt has also created divisions within the police. AAP said on April 17 that “six members of the Central Highway patrol were reportedly attacked by as many as 70 other police officers in a seemingly politically motivated attack”.
Commissioner Tom Kulunga of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) said: "It is no secret that certain politicians are providing funding and hire vehicles for certain elements of the RPNGC who are operating outside of my command and control."
The alleged attackers were officers from Mount Hagen who were brought to Port Moresby by O'Neill during the coup to counter pro-Somare forces. They allegedly accused the highway patrol officers of being loyal to Somare and were “stripped and made to lie on the floor” of a police station.
Such events have been used to stoke calls for foreign intervention in PNG.
Australia's parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs Richard Marles and foreign minister Bob Carr have expressed concern at the possible election delay.
Australia claims to be interested in protecting democracy, but its real concern is stability for the investment projects owned by Western interests in PNG.
An April 13 Sydney Morning Herald article said unnamed sources called for Australia to launch “a regional security force, backed by a US Navy helicopter carrier, to secure the peace” in PNG. It singled out ExxonMobil's $15 billion liquefied natural gas project as a key reason why Australia should intervene.
Australia's ruling class fears more aspects of PNG's society ― in particular, the large-scale exploitation of people and environment by foreign corporations ― may come into question if the illusion of democracy is not maintained through elections. Such a situation would threaten the megaprofits foreign businesses reap from PNG's natural resources.