Turmoil in PNG

| February 22, 2024

After police departed their posts due to salary deductions, citizens took advantage of the lack of law enforcement. This resulted in chaos, mall looting and political instability, with 22 casualties reported and the resignation of eight Pangu Pati coalition politicians. The turmoil could continue until mid-2026 unless a new prime minister is elected to initiate another 18-month grace period, during which a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Marape cannot occur.

When the Papua New Guinean (PNG) parliament convened on 13 February 2024, the opposition submitted a notice for vote of no confidence against Prime Minister James Marape, naming East Sepik Governor Allan Bird as an alternate prime minister.

The government is seeking a Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution on whether the prime minister candidate is restricted to party leaders or Members of Parliament (MPs) affiliated to a political party. Allan Bird is an independent MP.

Bird, who has been with the Marape-led coalition since 2019, resigned from the coalition after criticising the government over the mass looting and carnage on 10 January 2024 in Port Moresby which left 22 dead. The looting followed a policing vacuum when police left their posts, protesting the reduction in their salaries — an episode which the government blamed on a technical glitch in its payroll system.

Several Pangu Pati coalition politicians stood down as well, demanding that Prime Minister James Marape do the same. The Minister for Energy, Kerenga Kua, who was previously the minister for Petroleum and Energy under Marape from May 2019 to January 2024, also resigned. He oversaw the negotiations of Papua LNG, P’nyang LNG and the re-opening of the Porgera Mine, among other projects.

Though Marape refused to resign, the pending vote of no confidence foreshadows political instability until mid-2026 if a new prime minister is not elected to trigger another 18-month grace period. Grace periods are a constitutional provision to prevent a vote of no confidence against the incumbent prime minister. Marape’s expired on 9 February 2024.

Unless a new prime minister is elected, PNG politics may remain highly volatile until July 2026. Still, Marape has several favourable factors including Pangu Pati and coalition politicians’ dominance in the Parliament Business Committee and Pangu Pati having the highest number of members of parliament (MPs). Many of Pangu Pati’s ministers also hold strategic ministerial roles, and Marape himself holds the ministry for treasury, which he may use to induce opposition MPs to move to the government.

Pangu Pati has about 58 MPs as of 20 February 2024, just shy of the 60 MP majority required to survive a vote of no confidence. It also has coalition partners who can push the coalition’s total beyond the required majority.

But changes of government in 2011 and 2019, both non-election years, reveal instances where a prime minister can be replaced within government ranks. Peter O’Neill became prime minister in 2011 after his People’s National Congress party left Michael Somare’s National Alliance Party-led coalition. Marape similarly resigned from the People’s National Congress, joined Pangu Pati and was later elected prime minister. This means that Marape’s base is not secure and MPs can cross the floor of parliament on the day of the vote.

The Parliament Business Committee (PBC) and speaker have historically impeded no-confidence votes, but this can change with MPs’ realignments and Supreme Court intervention. Because the speaker is elected within the parliament, they are usually a ruling party member. Allan Bird, who was member of the PBC, was replaced by a government MP on 13 February 2024. This is crucial because the speaker chairs the PBC, which vets the notice for a vote of no confidence. Given that the PBC is elected within parliament, the government dominates it.

In the short term, it is possible that the PBC and speaker may prevent a vote of no confidence, but over time, the opposition may pursue Supreme Court intervention to ensure the proper execution of the vote of no confidence process. In 2016, parliament’s adjournment to evade a no-confidence vote was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and it was compelled to convene.

There is also a pattern of the speaker of parliament changing political affiliations. The current speaker, Job Pomat, left the People’s National Congress for Pangu Pati after a change in government in 2019. The no-confidence vote is relatively easy to enact if the speaker is impartial.

The risk of defection, as seen in 2020, challenges the notion that a majority secures the prime minister’s position. While Marape boasts 70-plus MPs in his coalition things can change. When the grace period following Marape’s 2019 election expired, as many as 20 MPs, led by the deputy prime minister and other senior ministers, left his coalition to join the opposition.

The economy’s health plays a decisive role, with higher allocations of Constituency Development Funds (CDFs) correlating with longer prime ministerial tenures. Opposition politicians have argued that prime ministers use CDFs as a political tool to reward supportive MPs. Marape’s proposal to increase development funds showcases an attempt to secure the loyalty of MPs.

These CDFs have been grossly abused, with the Ombudsman Commission complaining that across 2013–22, 81 of PNG’s 118 MPs did not acquit the funds they have been receiving. On average, 10 million kina (US$2.6 million) is allocated to Open MPs annually whilst provincial MPs annually receive 5 million kina (US$1.3 million) for each district in their province.

There is no guarantee that a change in government will improve governance, law and order, developmental and other structural issues in PNG. A vote of no confidence has been used as a vehicle by politicians with limited access to government resources to replace those with access. It also serves as a temporary disruption to prevent further entrenchment of a problematic regime and provides a brief euphoria.

Sustaining coalitions becomes challenging amid frequent votes of no confidence. As was the case in 2020, when prime ministers and politicians prioritise preserving the political coalition and its perks, governance and service delivery suffer. For Marape’s vote of no confidence, MPs have already divided into two camps. So long as no new prime minister is elected to trigger another grace period, these camps will continue for the next two and half years. Every parliament sitting will become an opportunity to replace Marape as he is no longer protected by the grace period.

Critical issues like unemployment and law and order have been overlooked for too long. The riot and looting in January were symptomatic of deep-seated problems — rampant unemployment, law enforcement breakdown and citizens’ frustration with rising costs of living.

Instead of addressing these root causes, the government’s response has been to suspend up to 10 public officials, ranging from the police commissioner and intelligence chief to the heads of treasury and finance, while investigating the ‘glitch’. Attributing the unrest solely to this glitch overlooks the underlying structural issues. By scapegoating technical failures or human operators, the government risks neglecting the systemic changes needed to prevent similar crises in the future.

Addressing these structural issues will be further postponed as vote of no confidence takes centre stage.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.