BY HAMISH McDONALD
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
PAPUA NEW GUINEA HAS SEEN plenty of political wild men - like the late prime minister Bill Skate with his Albanian-Australian political adviser and connections to Port Moresby's raskol gangs. But has there been anything like Belden Namah, the present deputy prime minister?
This year alone he's made the headlines a lot. In March, the Herald reported he had been in Sydney's Star casino at 7am one day last year, drunk and propositioning the male croupier, with $800,000 to blow. Not him, Namah said.
On Thursday this week he turned up at the Supreme Court in Port Moresby at the head of a band of police, demanding the chief justice, Sir Salamo Injia, turn himself in to be charged with sedition. After a long stand-off, that seems to have happened.
Namah has been the point man in the government of the prime minister, Peter O'Neill, in its extended skirmishing with the country's highest court over the legality of the ousting in August of the independence leader Sir Michael Somare's government.
Twice, in December and again this week, benches of the court including Injia have ruled that the rules had not been followed to the letter and ordered that Sir Michael be reinstated. In December, O'Neill quickly got a big majority in the parliament to reaffirm his support.
The ailing Sir Michael has twice tried to meet the governor-general to get sworn back into office, but has been turned away at the gate by police following O'Neill's orders. In December, Sir Michael appointed his own police and military commanders, getting a small group of soldiers to come out for him, but the initiative soon faltered.
This week, Sir Michael also failed to get into Government House, while O'Neill struggled to get parliament recalled. But Namah decided to go for the judges, ordering Injia and the two others on the bench for the latest ruling to resign within 24 hours for alleged bias against the O'Neill government.
Before being charged, the chief justice appealed to police and military personal to abide by the court's ruling. Asking their chiefs to ''take your oath seriously and stand up for the constitution'', Injia said: ''This country is being run by men who are happy to use force rather than the rule of law.''
It is a nasty stand-off, and the only blessing is that writs have already been issued for a general election to start on 23 June. Within a couple of months, a new hand of political cards will be dealt and the Somare-O'Neill legal contest will be a matter of history.
But it will be a very tense time until the voting starts. Namah was also leader of the drive to postpone the elections for six months, in violation of the constitution's very explicit limits of leeway from the five-year parliament term.
O'Neill has managed to overrule him and election preparations are well under way. But PNG is always a land of surprises, good and bad.
The big question is who will be left standing after the election. Normally 60-80% of sitting MPs are voted out, having been identified as disappointing rogues by the voters. The ''big men'' usually get back, thanks to largesse.
But as the PNG Post-Courier's Yutok column noted this week, voters are better educated and more savvy: ''They will drink the candidate's Coke, eat his lamb flaps, chew his buai [betel nut] and accept his 50 kina and vote for another candidate.''
Indeed, the prevailing mood among the 4.8 million eligible voters is undoubtedly disillusionment with the political class, after decades of decline in education, health and infrastructure despite sizeable growth in government revenues.
They can see the wealth from the big liquefied natural gas project, which will add 20% or more to gross domestic product when fully on stream in three years, getting siphoned away by politicians of the same stripe as before.
With the population growing at 3% a year, hitting 22 million by mid-century as Australia's PNG-born high commissioner Ian Kemish points out, it's a critical moment for the country's long-term success.
But with large amounts of grassroots funding already distributed by local MPs, and the honeypot set to get much bigger during the next parliament, it's not hard to see why more than 3,000 candidates are jostling for the 111 seats.
In its brief eight months in office, O'Neill's government has begun reforms, extending free education to higher grades, cleaning up state-run pension funds and other institutions, setting up a sovereign wealth fund and improving capacities in the rundown public service.
But O'Neill may well have had his own moment in the sun. It looks too early to write off the big men and their style of politicking. Namah could well be among them.
A former forestry minister in the Somare government until his defection to the opposition in 2009, Namah has been a wealthy businessman in his own right.
In 2009, he was identified as a buyer of properties worth some $1.5 million in Samoa. He initially denied it, and threatened to ''fix'' a fellow MP who queried it, but then said he had just been an ''intermediary'' in a transaction by a business associate.
Adding to the mix is Namah's background as an army officer in the PNG Defence Force. In 1997, he and fellow officers made a political intervention following the Sandline mercenary affair, which earned him more than five years in prison for sedition.
When Sir Michael got his small group of army supporters to launch a takeover attempt in December, Namah was instrumental in talking them into surrendering - partly, it emerged, by offering full amnesties and some pay-offs, according to the Australian National University specialist Nicole Harvey.
Now there is concern Namah will be able to hand-pick the army security personnel assigned to his own Vanimo-Green electorate.
It's going to be a long month, with no certainty the best candidates will emerge. But what's the alternative?