Papua New Guinea’s National Alliance party says it is confident of forming a coalition government when parliament resumes this week.
With the last bunch of seats still to be declared, the party is on course to emerge from PNG’s lengthy election as the party with the second most MPs, behind the ruling People’s National Congress party led by Peter O’Neill.
The PNC is on track to secure around 25 of the 111 seats in parliament – far less than the 55-odd MPs it went to the election with. Yet Mr O’Neill announced last week that the PNC was forming a coalition government with a few smaller parties, but this grouping did not appear to have anywhere near the 56 MPs needed for a majority.
The premature nature of this announcement was echoed on a formal scale on Friday when, with only around 80 of parliament’s 111 seats declared, the electoral commissioner Patilias Gamato went to Government House to hand over the election writs. In the same setting, he invited the People’s National Congress to attempt to form government – a formality extended to the party with the most MPs-elect.
With a fifth of the parliament seats yet to be filled, the invitation met with dismay.
“The Electoral Commission must return all the remaining writs before it determines which party has return the most nominated and then it can advise the Governor-General to issue that letter of invitation to form government,” said former Chief Justice Sir Arnold Amet.
The invitation can make it seem like the PNC and its allies are a government-in-waiting. However this is not certain. Another grouping claims it has the numbers to form a government. As opposed to the PNC, which has lost ground in terms of its number of MPs in this election, the National Alliance and the Pangu Pati have increased their numbers and are joining forces to try and form government.
The National Alliance president, and the MP-elect for Namatanai, Walter Schnaubelt said this overall group, known as the Alliance, was in ongoing talks with all parties. He explained that everyone in the alliance had a common objective.
“The objective is to not allow the leader of PNC to be the prime minister of Papua New Guinea,” Mr Schnaubelt said in reference to Peter O’Neill.
“We’re all coming to the table. Each party will present its own views, and its own position, and that’s left on the table for deliberation to refine it out and come up with one particular satisfactory prime minister. I think we’re all professional enough to be able to achieve that.”
Mr Schnaubelt said there was also an open invitation to PNC members who were not happy with Mr O’Neill’s leadership to come and join their camp in Kokopo. With the PNC camp based in Alotau, efforts to bring newly-elected MPs have taken on gangsterish proportions in recent days.
Last Thursday’s attempt by failed PNC candidate David Arore to manhandle the new MP in his home electorate, Richard Masere, away from his National Alliance party colleagues was a sign of the desperation in the coalition lobbying.
“The incident last week is unfortunate, but let’s not be haste in using the word kidnap in these instances. The former member and his team are not part of PNC,” Mr O’Neill said at a press conference late Friday.
As well as moving on from his party’s relationship with Mr Arore, Mr O’Neill is simply carrying on with plans to form government, outwardly confident everything will naturally fall into place when parliament sits later this week.
“Our government will continue to be focused on further empowering districts and provinces to deliver services and build infrastructure for their people,” he said in his latest statement that made no reference to the commotion around the emerging parliament.
Following the controversial return of election writs last Friday, PNG’s Ombudsman Commission obtained an interim court order to extend the deadline for the return of writs to today. This was to give those electorates not yet declared more time to fill the remaining parliament seats.
It was a move applauded by many who had worried about integrity of PNG’s democratic institutions being undermined by the electoral commissioner’s actions.
The former Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, whose succesful return to parliament last week was briefly clouded by a suspicious declaration by the returning officer, was among those welcoming the extension.
“The successful application by the Ombudsman Commission provides welcome relief from the election chaos, mismanagement and manipulation orchestrated by Mr Peter O’Neill and the Electoral Commission,” he said.
Insisting that all writs should be returned before the formation of government, Sir Mekere said last week’s hasty deadline for return of writs and invitation to the PNC to form Government was a charade organised with complicity of the Electoral Commissioner.
“This pantomime was designed to give PNC and the former Prime Minister an advantage by potentially disenfranchising thousands of voters.”
A trenchant critic of Mr O’Neill, Sir Mekere has thrown his weight in behind the Alliance. He is encouraging fellow independent MPs-elect to join him in the interests of removing the PNC government who he accuses of leading PNG towards economic ruin.
There remains a lot at stake in these late stages of PNG’s problematic election, which has been rife with wild inaccuracies in the electoral roll and ballot box distribution. Towns in several Highlands provinces remain in lockdown due to violence related to claims that vote counting has been hijacked.
The latest to descend into chaos is Kundiawa in Chimbu province where two people have been reported dead in an election-related shootout yesterday. It comes after deadly violence left at least four people dead in Wabag where the vote count for the contentious Kandep Open seat has been plagued by claims that dozens of ballot boxes were discounted.
With results in these seats due to be declared in the next day or so, there is every likelihood of more violence. Any government that emerges when parliament convenes later this week will be under pressure to address a catalogue of grievances related to this most chaotic of elections.