BANYAN BLOG – THE ECONOMIST
On 21 May, the chief justice, Sir Salamo Injia [pictured], joined two other judges in upholding the Supreme Court’s verdict from December, which ordered the restoration of Mr O’Neill’s predecessor as prime minister, Sir Michael Somare.
Another two judges from the five-member bench again dissented, but this time they were blunt with their disapproval: Gibbs Salika, the deputy chief justice, said the court’s deliberations had been compromised by the circulation of an email from one of the majority judges which called the O’Neill administration an “illegal regime”.
Another dissenting judge said that endorsing the majority verdict would be contrary to his judicial oath of office.
After the majority’s verdict was handed down, Sir Michael travelled to government house hoping to be sworn in. He was turned away by police officers, who insisted that “no one goes in until after the elections”.
Their operations commander, Colonel Walter Enuma, said that the police had had “enough of this chequebook war”, implying that both sides were using cash handouts to curry favour around the country.
The Supreme Court has had to wrestle with conflicting principles. The removal of Sir Michael Somare last August was clearly not in accordance with constitutional procedures, which required that two doctors appointed by the Governor-General declare the prime minister unfit to resume office.
At that time, Mr Somare was hospitalised in Singapore after a serious heart surgery, and his own family had announced that he was stepping down. The speaker of parliament prematurely declared the office of prime minister vacant. In the consequent election, Mr O’Neill obtained a large majority, with 70 MPs for him to 24 against.
But then Sir Michael made a miraculous recovery, and returned to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to claim back his old job. December’s Supreme Court ruling supported his case, which resulted in the first showdown between the judiciary and the legislature.
For a country where a large share of the population is beyond the effective reach of the state and where the rule of law is anyway highly precarious, confrontation between core institutions of government is a risky business. In any case, judges are usually sensibly wary of stepping into political affairs, and thus undermining the separation of powers.
The Supreme Court’s majority verdict in December was questionable, but to insist on the same decision now seems reckless. At the time the result was a constitutional crisis. The O’Neill and Somare camps battled for supremacy, even appointing rival Governor-Generals and police chiefs.
In January there was an attempted military takeover: its instigator, a retired colonel, claimed to be enforcing the court’s decision. On both occasions, key players—including the chief of the defence force and top civil servants—rallied behind the O’Neill government, in defiance of the courts but in accordance with the popular mood.
Parliament met in the wake of the December verdict, and reaffirmed its support for Mr O’Neill, even passing retrospective legislation (as the constitution allows) to render the proceedings of last August to be legal.
The O'Neill government has claimed the chief justice, Mr Injia, is in cahoots with the Somare camp and seeks to have him removed from office on grounds of corruption.
In the wake of the latest verdict, the deputy prime minister, Belden Namah, insisted that the three judges in the majority resign. At his instigation soldiers and police raided the Supreme Court on May 24th in an effort to arrest Mr Injia, who fled to his chambers.
For the two camps of politicians, the battle has been about who gets to go to the polls as the incumbent. Whoever does gains access to state funds to bankroll his campaign to form the next government.
As an outgoing, Australian-born MP, Dame Carol Kidu—herself formerly a cabinet minister under Sir Michael—said last week, politics in PNG is “fraught with problems with numbers, having to buy numbers”.
That issue arises not only after general elections, when the process of building governing coalitions is greased with large sums of money. Helped by a mineral-resources boom over the past decade, even the passage of ordinary legislation nowadays often requires payouts.
The latest Supreme Court decision is particularly dangerous because parliament was dissolved last week. Writs for elections were issued on 18 May, with the polls due next month. There is thus no easy way for the legislature to meet legally to resolve the impasse, and most MPs are anyway out in their remote constituencies on the campaign trail.
Elections in PNG are often turbulent, characterised by grave irregularities and violence, but they—rather than the courts—surely offer the best path to establishing who should form the next government.