SYDNEY — It’s back to the future for Papua New Guinea. Only this time round the friends of the young, troubled South Pacific nation are hoping it’s not a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.
After a rush of short-lived governments, a mountainous pile-up of public debt and its bloodiest election yet, PNG finds itself with a new government of the most surprising complexity. Heading it as prime minister is the man who led the first government 27 years ago, Michael Somare.
The Chief, as he is fondly (and sometimes angrily) known, is back in power — to his own surprise and that of his many political opponents and overseas friends. And as the “father of his nation,” he is back at a time when the country’s social and political stability are plumbing new depths.
“I thought I would be out of time,” the 66-year-old admitted as election results were announced last week — after endless delays and recounts — in the capital, Port Moresby. “People still believe I can make a contribution to this country.”
Nobody knows better than Somare as he takes top office for the third time just what a tremendously hard task lies ahead. PNG is struggling to recapture the hopes that greeted its rise from colonialism as the newest democracy back in 1975.
He acknowledged the marathon task ahead in his acceptance speech: “Our reserves have been so depleted that PNG is in dire financial straits. Everyone must tighten their belts and the government is no exception.”
The first foreign head of state to visit him was Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who arrived in Port Moresby on Tuesday. The call was a cordial one, with Howard stressing Australia’s continued support for PNG. But as the country’s biggest aid donor — Canberra contributes some $300 million a year to the near-beggared PNG budget — Howard quickly got down to the unhappy task of telling his neighbor to get his house in order. At a media conference after talks with Somare, he emphasized the need to link aid with economic reform, but was careful to deliver his clean-up-your-act message in diplomatic terms: After all, no aid recipient wants to be reminded of his failings, particularly from a neighbor once its colonial master.
Somare, a veteran nationalist who led PNG to independence from Australia in 1975, came to office following violence-plagued national elections, vowing to review the social and economic reforms of his pro-Western predecessor, Mekere Morauta.
He takes back the reins of power after a succession of well-intentioned, bumbling coalition governments. Skeptics, particularly among Australian investors whose fingers have been burned by collapses in PNG development projects, are less than joyful about the rise of at least one high official, Bill Skate, the new parliamentary Speaker.
“All corruption must be stopped,” the new Speaker told the first assembly, adding that the clean-up must start in parliamentarians’ own midst. It was Skate who presided over the fiscal chaos that almost brought the country to its knees a few years back.
Outgoing Prime Minister Morauta tried but failed to reform the financial chaos at the heart of PNG’s problems. A bright economist, Morauta failed to push reforms through corrupt regional and national power bases. To appease competing parochial heavyweights, he gave in to spending sprees that ended up reducing his budget to tatters. The currency, the kina, has fallen to record lows. Business confidence is abysmal and the interest of overseas investors seemingly dead.
In the volatility that is PNG politics, Morauta’s 11th-hour resignation earlier this month failed to shake support for a coalition of disparate interests that built up around Somare. His deposed People’s Democratic Movement boycotted the parliamentary vote, opening the way for a mixed-bag coalition under Somare to take the lead. A group of independents under Tim Neville then crossed the floor of the House to deliver Somare’s National Alliance group an 88-seat victory.
The tropical paradise that many overseas watchers thought they saw in PNG exists only in imagination. The early progress of a brave young democracy has been marred by opportunities lost. Natural resources, notably gold, copper and timber, have been unwisely exploited. A rich copper mine on offshore Bougainville Island, instead of bringing prosperity to local people, has helped fuel a bloody breakaway movement that has drained national finances and cohesion.
Power plays will continue to dog Port Moresby. Almost 30 years of self-rule since then-Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam cut the last colonial bonds have failed to unite a political structure still based on family and tribe. This latest election was, like earlier ones, replete with vote buying and paybacks, and marred by violence and murder. Many parliamentarians hold seats thanks to electoral fraud, theft of ballot papers and armed intimidation.
Still hopeful of national unity, Moi Avei, a senior member of the new government and architect of the Bougainville peace process, sees in the new administration hopes for independence and equality: “The cycle has been completed. The founding father has once again taken the helm.”
Somare certainly has the experience to bring his country back from the brink. He also has a reputation as an effective peacemaker. His traditional name, Sana, means “fightmaker and peacemaker.” Past work also gives him the international contacts needed to entice back badly needed investment funds, although foes talk darkly of alleged links with Taiwanese corporate crooks and Southeast Asian rain-forest loggers.
“The Old Man” returns to power after a career as colorful as a New Guinea jungle. The son of a policeman, he was raised in the East Sepik region. As a child he learned to count and sing in Japanese during Japan’s World War II occupation of the island. A founding member of the Pangu Party, he was only 30 when he first became prime minister of the newly independent nation.
Two years ago he again tried to renegotiate peace with Bougainville islanders, but his efforts are still to reach fulfillment. As foreign minister in the 1990s, he made an audacious bid to become U.N. Secretary General. When that failed he peevishly proclaimed the world had a “sabotaged view of Papua New Guinea as a country of cannibals, criminals and rascals.” “Rascal” is the name given to thugs who keep foreign residents of Port Moresby housed behind high barbed-wire fences.
Never one to mince words, Somare vowed to renegotiate all mining agreements with foreign companies. That outburst wiped more than $300 million off the value of PNG-related stocks on the Australian stock exchange.
That local love for the constantly re-elected member for East Sepik is widespread is clear from his latest victory. More than half of Papua New Guineans were born well after the Chief’s glory days, yet in this time of crisis they are turning to him to get the country back on track.
But, in volatile Port Moresby, how long will his 88-seat support in a 109-seat parliament last? Days before the final election count the country’s central bank governor warned that whoever forms the new government will be accepting a poisoned political chalice. And that from an economist who knows the World Bank’s assessment of PNG fiscal expertise.
Offering him gratuitous advice, The Australian newspaper opined that “PNG urgently needs a good dose of fiscal discipline and infrastructure development, and the restoration of law and order are essential if foreign investment is to return.”
The same could be said with greater emphasis of other young South Pacific nations such as Fiji and Solomon Islands. PNG, at least, has so far avoided the outright power onslaughts that still plague these island states.
Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, as close wealthy neighbors, have a vested interest in ensuring PNG stays on course as a coherent democracy with a stable socioeconomic core. However much Canberra may lament recent straying from that course, it will continue to offer aid without political interference.
The return of the Chief, steeped in the early struggles of independence and wise in the ways of bridge-building, could well be the guide for PNG and South Pacific unity.
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