Papua New Guinea could be set to install a new government after dozens of government members – including nine ministers – abandoned prime minister James Marape in parliament to sit on the opposition benches.
The opposition took control of parliament on Thursday and voted 57-39 to suspend parliament, ostensibly to block the passage of the government’s budget, but more fundamentally to remove Marape.
Parliament has been suspended until 1 December, when a motion of no-confidence will be moved against Marape.
Marape’s brief prime ministership appears imperilled, and he may find himself dislodged from power by a range of opposition forces allied against him.
Critics of Marape, in particular the opposition leader Belden Namah, have accused the prime minister of under-delivering on promises around corruption reform and economic development, and of leading a government of empty slogans such as “take back PNG” or promising to make PNG “the richest black Christian nation” on earth.
Marape was also criticised for failing to arrest those responsible for a massacre in Tari last year, in which 18 women and children were killed, despite promises that tribal violence and sorcery killings would be stamped out.
His support for an abortive but expensive deep-sea mining project in the Bismarck Sea, and his attempt to nationalise Porgera mine, were also held up as significant failures.
Under PNG’s constitution, new governments are given an 18-month grace period following an election before a vote of no-confidence can be brought against a prime minister. Marape became prime minister after elections in May 2019.
Marape’s grace period expires on 30 November, but opposition forces, bolstered by dissenting members of the government, have sought to block the budget.
With parliament now suspended, that budget will not be handed down, and the no-confidence motion will be brought the day after Marape’s grace period runs out.
Marape has lost key frontbench supporters, including the deputy PM Sam Basil, foreign affairs minister Patrick Pruaitch, and commerce and trade minister William Duma.
But he has vowed to fight on, saying “it’s not over till it’s over”, and saying he was rallying support to secure the 56 votes needed to hold power.
“Papua New Guineans must know this is a debate between those who want to maintain the status quo of corruption, big boys’ elite politics, multinational lobbyism for foreign interests, and those new leaders with a blend of strong experience, patriotic leaders who want to do the right thing, changing [the] country’s policies and laws for a better future for our children,” Marape said.
Controlling PNG’s unicameral parliament is a perennial challenge for prime ministers. Governments are drawn from loose and broad coalitions, often reliant on personal alliances.
But these are prone to sudden rupture, and Marape was always vulnerable. His Pangu party controls only 23 seats in the 111-seat parliament, and he relied, as PNG prime ministers have before him, on the support of numerous other parties.
Namah, a former military officer and deputy PM with a long and colourful career in parliament, appears unlikely to be PNG’s next prime minister.
There are several candidates to succeed Marape, including East Sepik governor Allan Bird, the deputy leader of the People’s National Congress party, Richard Maru, and the foreign affairs minister, Pruaitch.
The former prime minister Peter O’Neill, who remains a prominent MP, is not considered a realistic chance to retake the premiership.
Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, is set to visit PNG next week. PNG is Australia’s nearest neighbour and its former territory, and Australia remains the country’s largest aid donor and most influential relationship.
Morrison would not be drawn on the upheaval in PNG on Friday.
“I’m not going to speculate on those events,” he said. “But it’s my intention to be with prime minister Marape next Wednesday as planned.”