The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Aug., 13) - Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare is today set to make history once again. As the 8th National Parliament meets to elect a Speaker and a Prime Minister, Somare is at the helm of a coalition that has won a majority of the 109 parliamentary seats.

Never before has an incumbent Prime Minister been able to win office again. For Somare, this situation holds significant irony. In the early years he won electoral victories at the helm of the historic Pangu Pati. More recently it has been the National Alliance.

Somare led Pangu to a victory in the first post-independence election in 1977. He was ousted from office three years later in March 1980 after wanting to push through a bill barring MPs from owning and operating private businesses.

Somare’s then deputy, Sir Julius Chan, who had not been forewarned of these plans, opposed the proposed legislation. Chan won a no-confidence vote, the first of several that stopped every government until 2002 from serving a full five-year term.

Somare returned as Prime Minister again after the 1982 national elections. His then deputy, Paias Wingti, toppled him again three years later in November 1985.

A subsequent no-confidence vote saw Sir Rabbie Namaliu take over from Mr. Wingti in July 1988, but Wingti was back at the helm again in July 1992 after the national elections.

The late Sir William Skate became Prime Minister in July 1997, but resigned two years later in the face of seriously deteriorating economic conditions. This paved the way for Sir Mekere Morauta, who was defeated by Somare in the 2002 national elections.

This is a potted history of what political scientist Henry Okole describes as "one of the persevering democracies in the developing world." Okole says that in the face of rumors of coup d’etat at certain times, constitutional crises, a serious law and order situation and a civil war, "PNG can take pride in its record of democratic governance."

In the last five years, there has been increased confidence and optimism about the future. Possibly for the first time since independence, there is hope for greatly improved economic conditions for many Papua New Guineans.

In spite of direct personal attacks made on Somare in the course of the recent general election and since then, there is an arguable case that PNG is better off today than if the previous reformist government had continued at the helm after the 2002 elections.

Prevailing fiscal policies had greatly stifled expenditures on mineral exploration, which had fallen from well over 2 percent of global expenditures in the late 1980s and early 1990s to around 0.6 percent by 2002. There were wide predictions at the time that most mining, excluding Lihir, would end within a decade.

Changes implemented by the Somare Government, along with high commodity prices, have ensured a tremendous turnaround in exploration with several projects taking shape in various parts of the country.

Significant growth has also occurred in forestry sectors since 2003 after a decade of virtual stagnation. Even though the Somare Government had envisaged the start of 10 high impact projects soon after taking office, the tough regulatory climate has stymied the pace of development.

Only one project, Cloudy Bay, is fully on stream. Six others are at various stages of development, ensuring increases in timber royalties and various premiums that flow to some 200,000 rural people.

Despite progress in these areas, and the best jobs growth in a generation, there remains an undercurrent of dissatisfaction caused by the poor development record of the three decades since independence.

Problems of corruption and good governance, concerns about the law and order and access to education and health services continue to remain key challenges. The actions of Somare and his coalition members in the coming weeks could well signal how seriously these concerns will be tackled in the coming five years.

NA’s success in winning 27 out of 109 seats to become the most successful party in the just concluded elections has largely been to the credit of Somare himself.

He was the only NA leader to campaign through the length and breadth of the nation and it now appears to be within his power to deliver on promises NA has made to people in Buka, Kokopo, Port Moresby, Mendi, Mt Hagen, Wewak and elsewhere.

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