Papua New Guinea is a constitutional monarchy recognising Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, represented by a Governor-General who is nominated by parliament and serves for a term of six years.
Government is by parliamentary democracy, with a unicameral National Parliament of 111 members (increased from 109 before the 2012 general election). Elections are held every five years, with universal adult suffrage.
After a general election parliament elects a Prime Minister who heads the national government. Parliament can only hold votes of no confidence in the Prime Minister when more than 18 months has elapsed since an election and there are at least 12 months before a new election is due.
The political life of Papua New Guinea is one of diversity and is characterised by a tradition of fluid coalitions. A large number of candidates (more than 2,700 in 2007) contest the 111 seats at general elections, and the consequent low number of votes required to win seats means there is a high turnover of MPs. Allegiances are fragile and MPs often change parties more than once during the life of a parliament. Prime Ministers have tended not to serve out a full term between elections, though they have often returned to power later.
The general election that commenced in mid-June 2002 was chaotic and violent, with the loss of at least 25 lives, and had to be extended for four weeks beyond the scheduled two-week voting period. Even then six Southern Highlands constituencies could not be declared because of missing ballot boxes. The National Alliance party (NA) won 19 of the declared seats, Sir Mekere Morauta’s People’s Democratic Movement 12, People’s Progress Party eight, and Pangu Pati six, giving the National Alliance and its multiparty coalition a parliamentary majority and Alliance leader Sir Michael Somare once again became Prime Minister.
Following the parliamentary elections held in June–July 2007, in which NA won 27 seats and independents 21, Somare secured the agreement of a further 59 MPs to join his coalition, and in mid- August was duly re-elected Prime Minister by parliament.
In December 2010 the Supreme Court ruled Governor-General Sir Paulias Matane’s re-election in June 2010 had been unconstitutional. At the National Parliament’s next session in January 2011 Michael Ogio was elected Governor-General, defeating the opposition candidate, Sir Pato Kakaraya, by 65 votes to 23.
In the same month Sir Michael Somare stepped aside in order to face a Leadership Tribunal hearing on allegations of financial mismanagement, and his newly appointed deputy, Samuel Abal, became acting Prime Minister. Following a two-week suspension from office by the Tribunal in April 2011, Somare began a long period of medical treatment in Singapore. In August 2011, amid increasing concerns that Somare would never be able to resume office, a parliamentary vote declared the office of Prime Minister vacant, and the People’s National Congress Party (PNCP) leader and Transport and Works Minister, Peter O’Neill, was elected Prime Minister, receiving 70 of the 94 votes cast, with support from both government and opposition members. Several parties filed a challenge against parliament’s actions in the Supreme Court that month; these were joined by Somare following his return to Papua New Guinea in September.
O’Neill won another parliamentary vote of confidence in December 2011, after the Supreme Court had ruled that Somare be reinstated, and Parliament then passed retrospective legislation to legitimise O’Neill’s position. In January 2012 there was a further move to enforce the Supreme Court ruling by some members of the Defence Force loyal to Somare. This was quickly halted by the majority of the Force. In May 2012 the Supreme Court made a further unsuccessful attempt to reinstate Somare.
Parliamentary elections were held from 23 June to early August 2012, in the presence of a Commonwealth observer group led by Vanuatu’s former Prime Minister, Nipake Edward Natapei. O’Neill’s PNCP won 27 of the 111 seats, independents securing 16, the second largest bloc. The rest of the seats were shared among some 20 other parties, including the Triumph Heritage Empowerment party (12 seats) and NA (seven). Some 60 per cent of members of the last parliament were not returned to office. Turnout was 77 per cent.
When the new parliament assembled on 3 August 2012 O’Neill was re-elected PM, with the support of 93 members, including Sir Michael Somare whose NA had joined the coalition led by O’Neill, ending the political stalemate that had endured since August 2011. In its final report the observer group said that: ‘Some benchmarks for democratic elections were met, but significant challenges need to be addressed in election management, good electoral practices and strengthening the culture of democracy.’