PNG in 'unprecedented' constitutional crisis

Tensions in Papua New Guinea remain high as the country's political deadlock continues with its veteran premier and a youthful challenger both claiming the country's leadership.

Tensions in Papua New Guinea remain high as the country's political deadlock continues with its veteran premier and a youthful challenger both claiming the country's leadership.

Australia urged calm, saying it was "deeply concerned" over the tense standoff in the resource-rich country which has a history of violence and political intrigue.

Sir Michael Somare, 75, was reinstated as prime minister Monday when the Supreme Court ruled the election of Peter O'Neill to the post by fellow lawmakers in August was unconstitutional.

But parliamentary speaker Jeffery Nape said during an emergency sitting of parliament Tuesday that he would only recognise 46-year-old O'Neill's government, which was installed when Somare was incapacitated by illness.

Somare's daughter Betha told AFP that her father had been sworn in Tuesday, but her account was not corroborated by official sources.

O'Neill and his ministers stormed through a barricade manned by armed police at Government House to force a meeting with Governor General Michael Ogio, but the talks failed to produce any immediate resolution to the crisis.

O'Neill said that Ogio would meet with Somare on Wednesday before making a decision.

"He will meet with the grand chief tomorrow. He will then write to both of us and to express his decision on the best way to move forward," he said according to the Australian Associated Press.

"As parliament's speaker said today I'm the prime minister of the country, and Somare's trying to hijack it with some hooligan policeman. That's a fact."

The turmoil reinforces the impoverished Pacific island's image as a politically dysfunctional and often lawless nation which consistently ranks among the world's worst for crime and corruption.

The country, which is wracked by brutal gang violence and remains steeped in traditional magic, has seen governments toppled in the past as lawmakers change party allegiances.

Somare, who has led Papua New Guinea for almost half of its 36 years of independence, was ousted by a majority of lawmakers after he spent months in Singapore recuperating from heart surgery.

His long absence from parliament prompted lawmakers to declare his seat vacant, seemingly ending his dominance over political life in the troubled nation as it stands on the threshold of a resources boom.

But in a narrow 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court found there was no vacancy in the office of prime minister, and rendered illegal the decision to hand O'Neill power.

As a member of the Commonwealth, Papua New Guinea's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II and Ogio -- who has been petitioned by both sides on the political divide -- is her representative.

Anthony Regan, a constitutional law expert at the Australian National University, said PNG faced "an unprecedented constitutional crisis" and that Ogio, who was appointed by Somare, was in a difficult position.

"Does he listen to the parliament or the Supreme Court? Each is a valued constitutional institution," he said. "I'm afraid there is no simple solution."

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called for calm.

"We are deeply concerned about the situation," he told the Australian national broadcaster, adding that Canberra was in touch with all parties and employing "quiet diplomacy".

"Obviously there are heightened political tensions within Port Moresby with two, as it were, alternative prime ministers. This is unknown terrain in Papua New Guinea."

Somare became his country's first leader on independence in 1975. He lost office in a vote of no confidence in 1980, but was re-elected and again served as prime minister from 1982 to 1985, and again from 2002.

His family announced his resignation in June, but when the veteran politician recovered he insisted he was still in charge.

Source AFP

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