Saturday, December 17, 2011
Political crisis in Papua New Guinea An embarrassment of prime ministers
TWO heads are not always better than one. Less than a week after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court set in motion the most serious constitutional crisis in the country’s independent history, the South Pacific nation has two prime ministers, two cabinets, two governors-general and two police commissioners.
On December 12th the high court declared the prime-ministerial rule of Peter O’Neill (the upper of the two heads pictured, at right) to be illegitimate on the grounds that 75-year-old Sir Michael Somare (the lower of the two, at right), who was dumped as PM in August while receiving medical treatment in Singapore, had not vacated his office officially when Mr O’Neill replaced him.
Mr O’Neill and his parliamentary majority responded to the ruling, and the subsequent swearing-in of Sir Michael’s cabinet by the governor-general Michael Ogio, by taking the unprecedented step of suspending Mr Ogio himself—the stand-in for the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II—and appointing the speaker of parliament in his stead. Residents of the capital, Port Moresby, awoke on Thursday to find themselves trapped in a political Noah’s Ark: two of every political creature and no dry land in sight. By Saturday morning, Mr O'Neill's political advantage was clear, so much so that some reports were calling the crisis over, in his favour. Sir Michael's camp is calling it a bloodless coup.
That no one has resorted to violence (touch wood) is the first good thing that can be said of this debacle. That we know about it at all is the second. For unlike in nearby Fiji, where a 2006 military coup led by “Commodore” Frank Bainimarama led to the gutting of civil society and muzzling of critical voices, citizen-journalists in Papua New Guinea have flooded social-networking sites like Twitter to provide unfettered, real-time access to the unfolding political crisis.
While the world’s major media outlets have struggled to catch up with the story (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s excellent coverage being an exception) a blow-by-blow of the Byzantine political thriller was tearing up the blogosphere.
The #PNG hashtag has trended near the top on Twitter, a testament to a growing class of young sophisticates who may well pose the greatest threat to the region’s ossified authoritarianism and corruption. Many would cite Sir Michael and his cohorts as foremost representatives of that culture.
Tavurvur, a blogger whose writing has become required reading for those covering the crisis, says the island’s antiquated media are responsible for driving young people to blogs for information.
“A good indication of this is the unprecedented number of Papua New Guineans signing up to Twitter to simply follow a relevant Twitter feed—like my own, in order to remain updated,” he said in an interview. “Prior to the constitution crisis, there were only a handful of active PNG Twitter accounts. I could count the number on my hands. I can't do that now!”
The success of bloggers in dragging the rest of the world’s media towards Papua New Guinea will likely embolden a growing number of bloggers who focus on Fiji, Tavurvur said, to challenge official censorship there. The Arab Spring showed that even the world’s most repressive regimes were not immune to the power of social media. The question for the South Pacific is whether its most geographically isolated ones will prove to be.
And just what have these citizen-journalists dredged up, beyond the minutiae of political battles? One major point of conversation is the role, or rather lack of one, for the Commonwealth in solving the crisis.
The Commonwealth dumped Fiji in 2009, but in so doing it accomplished little beyond pushing the budding dictatorship closer to China, which has for years been cosying up to the region’s leaders. Now Mr Ogio’s gambit, the most forceful move by a governor-general the region has seen in decades, has been met with a shrug and promptly ignored.
Somewhere, a royalist has surely realised with anxiety that the question, “just what do we get out of the Commonwealth?”, fits snugly within Twitter’s 140-character limit.
(Picture credits: AFP, Wikimedia Commons) The Economist