ANALYSIS: By Keith Jackson
The headlines variously read “O’Neill ‘invited’ to form government”, “O’Neill gets tap to form government” and “People’s National Congress invited to form PNG government“.
Naive headlines that gave a hint of legitimacy and respectability to what occurred in Papua New Guinea yesterday.
With counting in 23 of the 111 seats still incomplete, Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato – already under a cloud for his conduct of the election – advised the Governor-General that Peter O’Neill’s People’s National Congress commanded enough seats to form a government – a palpable lie.
By Friday afternoon PNC had won only one-quarter of the seats declared.
“I certify that the People’s National Congress party has won the largest number of declared seats in the 2017 national election, Your Excellency,” Gamato said, “accordingly I advise that you call on the public officer of the PNC to receive the invitation on behalf of the party.”
As political commentator and prominent blogger Martyn Namorong tweeted: “We’ve essentially witnessed a coup unfold in Port Moresby this afternoon.”
A ‘coup’ to be tested
Of course it was a “coup” that will have to be tested in Parliament – should it be recalled – but the very fact that O’Neill can wear the prime ministerial badge during the period when loyalties are being tested is a ploy to drag wavering members-elect to the PNC and so attempt to consolidate its numbers on the floor of the house.
With the numbers seeming to be very close between the PNC coalition and its newly invigorated and numerically stronger opposition, every vote is important.
But nothing in conventional politics explains what has been O’Neill’s breathtaking attempt to steal an election that was apparently slipping out of his grasp.
Parliament is due to sit next Friday for the formation of government and it has yet to be seen whether a prime minister who has dishonoured many of the conventions and protocols so far will honour one of the most important of all, the ability of an elected Parliament to freely determine who shall govern the country.
“We’re look forward to forming government in the coming days and we believe the PNC has been given a mandate under the laws of this country governing the electoral process,” O’Neill told a media conference.
Electoral Commissioner Gamato, whose performance in this election has been appalling, professed that it was “unfortunate” that so many seats were undeclared.
Meanwhile, the PNG Ombudsman Michael Dick made an heroic effort to preserve democratic values by filing an urgent application for the extension of writs, which the courts granted until Monday.
At the time of writing it was uncertain whether the government would comply.
An outraged Registrar of Political Parties, Alphonse Gelu, also called for an extension of time for the return of writs.
But it seemed all in vain; the Governor-General, Sir Bob Dadae, was entertaining Prime Minister O’Neill and besuited cohorts William Duma and Powes Parkop and sharing a glass of celebratory orange juice with them (see top picture).
At the same time, reports SBS’s Stefan Armbruster, violent post-election clashes and gun battles continued in Duma’s backyard in the Highlands and there was an attempted kidnapping of a candidate at gunpoint at Port Moresby international airport by alleged PNC elements.
Mt Hagen is in lockdown and local media have posted footage showing crowds of people fleeing gunfire in the streets. Tensions escalated as results were progressively declared and challenged, Armbruster reported.
While O’Neill was having his faux government sworn in, the growing Alliance of parties determined to remove him from power said it was confident it would have the support of enough MPs to form a new government next week.
The coalition includes the next two biggest parties after PNC, National Alliance and Pangu Pati.
Radio New Zealand International said it was unclear how many of the remaining MPs-elect to be declared would attend the crucial first sitting of Parliament.
In Canberra, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop refused to say whether she considered the election free and fair until after “final reports” from four Australian parliamentarians who observed the poll, according to PNG commentators in circumstances that would have left them without much idea of what had transpired.
But Ms Bishop admitted that “Australia provided extensive technical advice and logistical support to PNG’s election authorities”. This included assistance in compiling the catastrophically inadequate and criminally rorted common roll.
Beyond that, there was no substantive comment other than an unintentionally ironic “we will continue to work with PNG to help strengthen its electoral system.”
As Australian reader David Harley tweeted, “Hey @JulieBishopMP how long are we going to ignore these goings on to our north?”