Will the Marape and Pangu Party coalition stand the test of PNG politics?

Marape attends celebrations for the 52nd anniversary of the Pangu Party, Lae (Credit: PNG Post Courier)

One feature of PNG politics is a tension between political leaders and political parties. Another feature is the tension between western style democratically ordered conventions of electing prime ministers (PM) after the elections and the more colourful PNG style – perhaps also a convention now – of reorganising and rebalancing leadership and power during votes of no confidence (VONC). Michael Kabuni discusses here and I discussed here some of the complexities of these dynamics in PNG.

We saw these dynamics play out in the most recent episode. Marape broke away from People’s National Congress (PNC) and, after some manoeuvring, the dust settled on a coalition between the group of members of parliament led by Marape and the Pangu party with a number of others. During this process, we saw that party policies or ideology are not strong influences in shaping the outcomes but rather are used as rhetorical tools in the games of out-manoeuvring the incumbent PM.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about the relationship between political leaders and political parties especially given the performance of the two PMs who preceded Marape. Somare and his successor, O’Neill, both sustained leadership of the National Alliance (NA) and PNC, respectively. Both NA and PNC enjoyed strong performances at the elections.

Recently, we have seen Marape reshuffle his cabinet in what seems to be a move to distance himself further from his former PNC colleagues. In a surprising move, Marape appointed the shadow treasurer, Ian Ling Stuckey, as the new treasurer. A number of senior opposition members crossed the floor to join the Marape government. Sam Basil, formerly with Pangu and an O’Neill ally, was shunted sideways from Treasury to Planning.

These moves point to troubled waters for Marape and raise the question of whether he has a sufficient political base to sustain his leadership. It also raises the question of whether he is, or is willing to be, aligned more firmly with a party brand. This is important because, although having strong party support determines Marape’s immediate leadership, it also shapes his prospects of sustaining his position as PM leading into, during, and beyond the national general elections in 2022. Without a strong party to lead and win the 2022 elections, Marape’s chances of being invited back to form government are reduced and he will be left to rely on his personal political brand, charisma, and prowess as he did during the VONC.

(Image credit: Michelle N Rooney)

Report detailing Pangu election performance in 1982 (Image credit: Michelle N Rooney)

Marape’s first months as PM have been founded on a strong coalition with Pangu party. If Marape is no longer a member of PNC, and is instead a coalition member with Pangu, then what is the character of his purported membership and leadership position within Pangu? Pangu is the oldest political party in PNG with its political base and origins in the Morobe Province, and a strong support base in the northern coastal region of mainland PNG (Momase). It has withstood the test of time in PNG politics to remain a key political institution. See here for a report on their election performance in the 1982 national elections. Pangu made a comeback in the 2017 elections running on a platform of opposition to the PNC. After the elections, Basil, then Pangu’s leader, joined O’Neill’s government. The party split, and an ongoing dispute emerged about who the leader is. Most recently in May 2019, and coinciding with Marape’s move away from the O’Neill led PNC that set in motion the VONC, Morobe Governor Ginso Saonu was reportedly appointed as interim party leader. Saonu extended the invitation to Marape to join the party providing the numbers required to bolster Marape’s position. However, media reports still point to internal turmoil within the party.

Marape’s hold on the prized PM position is not a fait accompli. It is against this tumultuous and confusing background that Marape finds himself PM – no longer a member of a strong political party like PNC, and in a coalition dependent on the support of Pangu to hold his position. Reflecting the uncertainty of this coalition, PNG’s media reports about Marape’s statements are ambivalent. For example, in this report he is reported as referring to Pangu as ‘My Pangu’. In June, Marape visited Lae, the political base and origins of the Pangu party, accompanied by the party’s pioneering leaders to attend the fifty second commemoration of the party. Although the senior leaders of the party expressed their support and solidarity, they fell short of stating that he was the leader. It is unlikely the leadership of this party will go to a newcomer. In announcing Ling Stuckey as the new Treasurer, the PM reportedly referred to Pangu as the party that he ‘co-leads’.

From the outside, it is not possible to know whether these ambivalent statements reflect the confusion among the public, as reflected in some comments on social media and in the mainstream media about this, or they are carefully crafted to portray a coalition that is not set in stone. Only those on the inside could tell us.

Whatever the case, Marape will need to overcome immediate challenges to his leadership. The recent changes in the cabinet, including the sidelining of O’Neill and the move by senior opposition members to the government side, are signs that there are major moves underway to challenge or consolidate Marape’s leadership. The latest indications reported in the PNG media this week are that Patrick Pruaitch, leader of the NA party, joined by members of his party, crossed the floor to join the Marape government.

The real test, however, is in the longer term. Even if he is able to overcome immediate challenges, the PM will still need to move into the 2022 national general elections with a solid and wide political base. He does not enjoy the kind of political party base that his predecessors had nor is his ‘co-leadership’ of Pangu guaranteed. The coalitions forming around him seem too fluid and lack the clarity required to guarantee him the support he will need. Heading even a small political party will be necessary if he is to continue to play the game of politics on the floor of parliament. One thing is clear: Marape has his work cut out.

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Michelle Nayahamui Rooney

Michelle Rooney is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, working for our partnership with the University of Papua New Guinea. She holds a PhD and a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) from ANU, and a Masters of Arts in Development Economics from University of Sussex, UK.

5 Comments

  • There are at least 2 more reasons for Marape joining Pangu: First, Ginson Sonau was rebuilding Pangu Pati after Pangu MPs resigned and joined Melanesia Alliance. Sonau was the only MP to remain as Pangu MP after the resignations. Six other MPs who left Pangu for Melanesian Alliance later returned to join Sonau – this was during the impasse. He invited those resigning from PNC and others leaving the government coalition to join Pangu.

    Second reason is that, Marape and other Highlands MPs cited the unfair distribution or lack of payment of LNG royalties as they resigned. Sonau had earlier taken the government to court on behalf of the Morobe people and had successfully stalled Wofu mine from starting operations, arguing that the deal did not benefit the people of Morobe. It made sense for Marape and other Highland MPs citing dissatisfaction over resources payments to join Soanu.

    When it comes to leadership, Sonau has proven his loyalty to Pangu by remaining with the party when the others reigned to join Melanesian Alliance. It is possible that he will remain the party leader. Marape on the other hand, has joined the party out of convenience.

    Marape has not made any substantial statements which identified himself as Pangu man, apart from stating that Pangu was “detaching” from PNC on 30 August 2019. He uses the words “I”, “my government”, the “Marape Manifesto” etc. He is yet to declare anything as Pangu Pati policy.

    It is possible that Sonau may take control of Pangu Pati with the intention of becoming the PM when PNG goes to polls in 2022.

    • Thanks Michael for these insights. Thank you also for your latest blog giving great perspectives and insights into the overall dynamics.

      I think it will be very interesting, leading into the 2022 elections to track how this dynamics between political leaders and parties develops. Clearly, and not surprisingly, any aspirant for the PM post needs either have a very strong charisma to draw supporters around him and/or needs to own or take leadership of a political party.
      It’s interesting to note that the moves between opposition and government also seem to be about hopping and sidestepping where certain people are. For example, there seems to be a lot of focus on where O’Neill is placed in shaping how MPs move.
      I wonder how long term relationships between MPs, feuds, political settlements and so on are influencing MPs decisions?
      I would love to be a fly on the wall.

  • Thanks Michelle for this analysis.

    I would suggest your headline should read something like “will Marape stand the test of coalition politics and individual MPs politics in PNG?”.

    Let me provide a background on the above suggestion. PM Marape was the then right-hand man for PNC and former PM O’Neill. For the 7 years when PNC led the government, both Marape and O’Neill manoeuvred the PNG political and economic landscapes to their advantage.

    PM Marape has no intention of starting a new political party or aligning with one of the existing ones or pulling out from PM O’Neill when the call for PM O’Neill was clearly written on the walls across PNG. Marape was in a comfort zone with everything at his disposal with full trust from the Boss.

    In early 2019, there were talks within the PNC bloc that Marape would be sacked from his Finance portfolio. This will be a surprise and a terrible slap in the face for Marape, not only as a loyal servant to PM O’Neill but a core inner member of PNG, and would cause a tribal disposition for him as a brother from the Huli basin neighbouring with Ialibu ranges.

    To withstand the downplay of PM O’Neill, Marape has to take a stand that would look “man to man business” by resigning from the Finance portfolio and step out to support in disguise the call on the walls across PNG. This is the moment of make or break when the small opposition team were already in camp with only one slogan “not to change the PM O’Neill government but remove Peter O’Neill”. It was the moment for James Marape.

    During that occasion from March to May 2019, few political parties break and regroup with others, individual MPs were party hopping and moved from one camp to other, including Marape.

    For someone like Marape to stand bold and take leadership role in a party is still a long way down the lane. Though Marape joined the Pangu Parti to lead as the major coalition, he still regarded as one belong to PNC and moved because of some unknown reasons as an individual MP, not moved with a genuine call to change. The PM position came to him as a surprise and not a cleverly calculated achievement.

    Since PM Marape has no leadership experience in political parties and how to nurture coalition partners in a political landscape, he would have a hard time trying to keep everyone intact. Right now, Pangu Parti wants to sack all PNC MPs with portfolios currently in government, while Marape holds loyal to some of the PNC colleagues with portfolios. Should Marape bow to Pangu and coalition interest or keep his friends without O’Neill-it is not a simple decision to make.

    Currently, the NA led opposition team and key MP like Mekere have moved into government posing more challenge for Marape. The PM Marape was indecisive on the move and how strategically he could keep everyone happy and intact is a holy grail.

    The clear indecisive statement from the PM this week was, “any Minister in government who wants to move to the opposition can do so at their own will and who wants to stay can stay”. Such statement will determine PM JM position leading into 2022.

    • Thank you very much JK Domyal for providing these insights.

      I really like the alternative title you have proposed: “will Marape stand the test of coalition politics and individual MPs politics in PNG?”.

      Thinking in terms of coalition politics and individual MPs politics, it seems we have: 1. a contest between O’Neill and Marape for PNC; 2. a contest between PNC and PANGU with Marape the glue between PNC and PANGU; 3. a mobile and important NA that seems to be moving between; 4. Individual influential MPs moving also.

      It seems that Marape is both the glue pulling everyone together while at the same time not quite the leader of either PNC or PANGU.
      I am curious about the implications of this the arguments for the introduction of OLIPPAC and how things will unfold leading into the 2022 elections.
      For me, important questions are: Will Marape need to be leader of a political party if he is to sustain the PM position? Convention in PNG politics suggests that one needs to have some alliances with a political party (although not necessarily one with majority numbers) to be invited to form government.
      Does he want to be the leader of a political party?

      I agree with you that, how Marape can keep everyone intact and happy is a holy grail.

      Interesting times ahead.

      • Thanks Michelle for the discussion.

        Thanks again for raising these 4 points above as it will be the business for this Marabe Davis government. Being a politician is not the same as being a leader of a political party.

        If Marabe becomes the leader of Pangu (he assumed the leadership now), my take is that he would not live beyond 2022 (I will explain the reason later).

        If Marabe becomes the leader of PNC, he would have a stiff challenge trying to keep PNC dominance in PNG (I will explain the reason later).

        As a young aspiring politician, though PNG is big and diverse, there is just one or two things that Marabe could do to develop himself as the next generation of a great leader and no one would remove him for the next 15-20 years as PM, mark my word.

        I will not explain it here, but leave it open for an intellectual discussion in this forum, I would do it in another time not now.

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