Three issues that will shape PNG politics from 2020 to 2022

(Credit: Papua New Guinea Today)
(Credit: Papua New Guinea Today)
Written by Michael Kabuni

After the change of government in May 2019, members of parliament in Papua New Guinea kept changing sides throughout 2019. This year will continue to be another busy year for PNG politics. Three issues to watch are: the Supreme Court ruling on the validity of Prime Minister James Marape’s election on 30 May 2019; Kerenga Kua’s challenge against the appointment of Belden Namah as the opposition leader; and the expiry of the 18-month post-election grace period from a vote of no confidence on 28 November 2020. The stability of the current Marape-led coalition depends on these three issues.

Validity of James Marape’s election

After voting for James Marape to be the prime minister, National Alliance Party and opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch filed a Supreme Court reference questioning the validity of Marape’s election. There were three prime ministerial candidates nominated: Sir Mekere Morauta, James Marape, and Peter O’Neill. Peter O’Neill withdrew his name after the nomination had closed, and parliament proceeded to electing James Marape as prime minister. Pruaitch argued that Peter O’Neill’s withdrawal after the nomination had closed was in violation of Parliamentary Standing Orders and sought a Supreme Court interpretation of the legality of the prime minister’s election.

The judges ruled that Pruaitch as the opposition leader had standing and sufficient interest to pursue the issue in court. However, this ruling also meant that he would only be entitled to pursue or withdraw the case if he remained the opposition leader, and not as an ordinary member of parliament. When Pruaitch switched from opposition to the government side without first withdrawing the case on 10 September 2019, he lost the power to withdraw or pursue the case as he was no longer the opposition leader. When he subsequently sought to withdraw the case, the court refused to grant him the decision. Belden Namah, who was appointed as the new opposition leader, immediately declared his intention to pursue the question of validity of Marape’s election before the Supreme Court.

Some say that Patrick Pruaitch only used the case to bargain for a ministerial portfolio from the Marape-led government. After he moved to the government side, he was given the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade. If Namah is successful in his application, the prime minister’s position will immediately become vacant and the parliament will elect a new prime minister.

Namah’s appointment as the opposition leader challenged

Kerenga Kua, another opposition MP, who voted against James Marape in May 2019 but was given the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, is not challenging the validity of Belden Namah pursuing the case against James Marape. Kua argues that even though Pruaitch announced his departure from the opposition camp on 10 September 2019, he had not officially resigned from the opposition leader’s position before Namah was appointed, and subsequently sought to pursue the case against Marape. The case has been adjourned. If Kua is successful in this case, the opposition leader’s position will immediately become vacant, and another process of appointment will follow. This decision will not, however, affect the case against the prime minister’s election, unless it is withdrawn by a leader of the opposition.

It is also possible that Kerenga Kua is pursuing this case to delay the case against the validity of the election of James Marape. With Namah’s standing being questioned, the courts cannot proceed with the case against Marape until Namah’s standing before the Supreme Court to pursue the case is determined.

Vote of no confidence

After the election of a prime minister, either after a national election or through a vote of no confidence, legislation prevents the removal of the prime minister through a vote of no confidence for 18 months. The grace period for Marape will expire on 28 November 2020, leaving it open for MPs to challenge James Marape for the prime minister’s position. This phase where the prime minister is subject to a vote of no confidence will last from 28 November 2020 to 24 July 2021, an eight-month window. From 24 July 2021, the 12-month grace period prior to the issue of election writs (in July 2022 for the 2022 elections), no vote of no confidence will be possible.

What are the possible scenarios in the eight months where the prime minister will become subject to a vote of no confidence? From previous experience, the parliament has strategically manipulated parliament sitting days and adjournment of parliament to avoid a motion for a vote of no confidence. For instance, parliament may minimise the parliamentary sitting days during the eight-month period, limiting the chances of a vote of no confidence. Because the next grace period starts on 24 July 2021, the parliament may meet briefly in February 2021, when parliament usually meets, then adjourn and schedule the next sitting to fall after 24 July.

Finally, can a vote of no confidence proceed if cases related to the election of the prime minister are before the courts? There is no provision in the standing orders of the parliament on this matter. Standing Order 284 states that any matter not governed by standing order, the Speaker shall decide in accordance with the practice of the House of Representatives and House of Commons. Job Popat, the Speaker of the Parliament, is also the deputy leader of the People’s National Congress, the party of former prime minister Peter O’Neill. However, is not clear whether he would make such an unpopular call.

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Michael Kabuni

Michael Kabuni is a Teaching Fellow in Political Science at the University of Papua New Guinea.

10 Comments

  • Michael thanks so much for your blog. Sharing insights of PNG political matters, from your viewpoint, is useful for me.
    But one question I have. Can you write something about Bougainville? I am sure it is an agenda that will also change PNG political landscape.

    • Hi Lawrence, apologies for a very late reply. Here is an article I wrote on Bougainville. It was published by the National Research Institute. It’s on generating revenue internally.

      • Hi Michael

        Thank you so much for your effort in researching and writing these articles. I enjoy the insight gain from reading about our country especially the piece on Bougainville. Hope our leaders and policymakers learn from them.

  • Thank you Michael for this excellent piece.

    1. It’s quite difficult to understand politics in PNG. MPs in PNG find it very difficult to move from the government to opposition but very easy to move from opposition to the government which justifies your previous blog post about politics in PNG being fluid. For instance, just this week, Peter Numu, governor for Eastern Highlands moved to join the government from the opposition and Peter O’Neill to the opposition but Mr O’Neill insist to remain in the government. PM Marape, on emtv when welcoming Peter Numu, he said, “we are trading old Peter for a new Peter”. This sounds hilarious but that’s how PNG politics works. What matters is NOT the ‘Rule of Law’ but political party policy platforms. What MPs are doing is like they are literally tearing the constitution in front of the eight million citizens. It’s more or less like Donald Trump’s Senate Impeachment trial, his acquittal and his third State of the Union address which ended with Nancy Pelosi literally tearing Trump’s speech in front of the congress and the world.

    2. Political party policies matters. Your conclusion is inevitably likely to happen after the eighteen-month grace period for the election of prime minister because last year’s VONC, the speaker Job Pomat obviously wanted O’Neill to retain the PM seat and in doing so, he ended up becoming a law professor turning the parliament’s chamber into a lecture room with 110 law students to explain the Standing Orders of the parliament instead of running the election. So Speaker being the deputy leader of PNC, it is indeed likely to happen.

  • Theoretically your assumptions and opinions may work, however, our parliamentary processes have been tampered with when Peter O’Neill removed Sir Michael Somare and installed himself as the prime minister.

    This action by O’Neill forever questioned the power of parliamentary processes and also strength of the separation of powers.

    In an ideal democracy (there is none), this works.

    Experience has taught us that the Papua New Guinea democracy and parliamentary system including the judiciary do not work together as many assume and this is fine because of their separation of powers.

    There will be no supreme court reference, no vote of confidence and whatever, until, we go to elections in 2022.

  • Thanks bro Michael Kabuni for this comprehensive and insightful assessment of the major political challenges looming ahead for the James Marape-Davis Steven’s coalition government.

    I, indeed think that James Marape’s election will be nullified by the Supreme Court and the same will hold through for the appointment of Beldah Namah as Opposition Leader. This paves the way for Political Parties to hold Caucus meetings to muse over their alternate candidate for Prime Minister.

    It is my established political prediction that James Marape, Sam Basil, or Charles ABEL, MP, possible candidates for the post of Prime Minister.

  • Dear Michael Kabuni, thank you for this excellent political insight into the three prevailing political challenges that now looms large for the Marape-Steven Government Coalition Government.

    Firstly, in terms of the political math’s on the floor of Parliament. I think that James Marape as Parliamentary Leader of the Pangu Pati still has the numbers to re-elect James Marape as Prime Minister if the Supreme Court Case seeking a Judicial Interpretation of Parliamentary Standing Orders in the election of James Marape as Prime Minister when another Prime Ministerial candidate – Peter O’Neill, CMG, MP withdrew his candidacy at the 11th hour after nominations had closed which is unconstitutional.

    Importantly, Prime Minister Honorable James Marape has over the last couple of days made statements to the effect that he had communicated with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, regarding the recent political furor over allegations that William Duma has been involved in scandalous dealings in Australia.

    I think right now, Honorable James Marape needs William Duma’s eight MP’s to help bolster the Pangu Pati numbers currently in Government in a effort to maintain consistency and continuity of the Pangu Pati led coalition Government. How Hon. James Marape is going to achieve that remains to be seen.

    However, the Supreme Court case in the election of James Marape, the appointment of Beldah Namah, as opposition leader. If successful, which, I think they will be given that the Supreme Court has already dismissed Patrick Pruaitch’s request to have the case withdrawn. This sends an important signal that the integrity of the political process when it comes to the election of a Prime Minister and the appointment of an Opposition Leader on the floor of Parliament is being brought into disrepute and undermines the moral spirit and letter of political process in the election of a Prime Minister.

    Hence, it is my political prediction that yes the Supreme Court will nullify James Marape’s election as Prime Minister. This will leave it wide open for all political parties to immediately call for their political party’s Caucus meetings.

    Similarly, the Supreme Court will also nullify Beldah Namah’s appointment as Opposition Leader. This will leave his position vacant for a new Opposition Leader to be elected on the floor of Parliament. Hence, I therefore feel that whoever understands the political maths and has sufficient influence and the popular vote among MPs will immediately be nominated as a candidate for the position of Prime Minister.

    Who are the likely candidates for Prime Minister? I believe that this would be James Marape, Richard Maru, Sam Basil, and Charles Abel, MP,

  • Thanks Michael, interesting insight into the political events leading up to the next elections. The main political event now on agenda is the validity of the election of PMJM. Everyone is looking forward to the Court’s ruling. Once the Courts nullified the election, the Speaker would not hesitate to recall Parliament to elect a new PM. On the whole, there is this ‘eleventh hour call’ that eventuates when a major decision of the Courts is reached – take the ‘slip rule’ in the former PMs case.

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