By James Chin

If there is a truism in PNG politics, it’s that political power is like sand - it gets blown away at the slightest wind.

For the past few months, the Somare government has been trying to prolong its lifespan. Under the PNG constitution, the earliest a vote of no confidence (VNC) can take place is 18 months after a new government has been installed. Somare's time will be up in February next year and the grand old man of PNG is pulling out all the stops to ensure that the VNC does not go ahead.

Last month, the government unveiled plans to revise the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Bill. Under the proposed amendments, if a VNC is successful, parliament is automatically dissolved and a snap election is called.

With casualty rates running as high as 80 percent at every election, no MPs in their right minds would vote for the VNC and a government by default will last the full five years.

Members of parliament in PNG are an autonomous lot; they like the idea that the prime minister can be replaced if the "cargo" does not flow their way and their only weapon is their vote.

The backlash was immediate and so strong that even the government had to back down. Round One to the MPs.

Next the government came up with another grand idea: Why don't we simply extend the "safe period" to 36 months instead of the present 18 months?

Critics point out that this is more than half of the maximum five-year parliamentary term.

On top of this, the PNG Constitution also disallowed a VNC 12 months prior to a general election. Thus if the amendment was adopted, the only period available is a 12-month window. In practice, once a government is installed it would be virtually impossible to remove it via a VNC.

Supporters of the change claim that far from creating a five-year dictatorship, the new measures will guarantee political stability and continuity. The main cause of PNG's political instability since independence, as the argument goes, is the VNC.

Since independence, more governments have been formed through VNC than general elections.

Governments cannot rule and make decisions if they have to look over their shoulders all the time. Political stability is the savior of PNG.

The arguments against are equally compelling. Critics argued that banning a VNC goes against the democratic spirit of the Constitution and takes away the moral right of the elected representatives to remove a government if it is found to be corrupt, incompetent and mafia-like.

In PNG, it is easier to prove all three than to disprove.

The critics also argue that the VNC acts a pressure valve against frustration by the people who are not getting any basic government goods and services, such as security, health care and education.

The next sitting of parliament will consider the amendments again after it was passed by a majority of a singe vote last month. There are frantic moves now to ensure that it goes through the second and third reading without any roadblocks.

Although government MPs indicated in public they were supportive of the amendments, some key players are already negotiating the post-Somare scenarios. The game plan is to sink the amendments at the second reading, thus ensuring that the government will not have the time to introduce any new amendments before February next year.

Under the Constitution, there must be a 60-day grace period between the first and second reading. What is not said in public and the heart of the dispute is the old PM musical chairs.

The reality in PNG is that all MPs with any self-esteem have ambition to be PM one day. The constant maneuverings and instability suits everybody as it gives all a chance to put together the numbers to move into Mirigini House (the official residence of the PM).

The old dictum that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics is truer in PNG than anywhere else in the Pacific. If the amendments are promulgated, the "nambawan" prize in PNG will no longer be on offer.

September 3, 2003


Dr James Chin lectures in political science at the University of Papua New Guinea. He has written extensively on PNG politics.


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