9 Aug 2022

James Marape will be Papua New Guinea's prime minister after an election marred by violence

8:19 pm on 9 August 2022

Papua New Guinea's incumbent Prime Minister, James Marape, has been returned to the top job.

James Marape

James Marape Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Marape was voted in as prime minister unopposed, with unanimous support from all MPs present in the first parliamentary sitting following the country's controversial, and at times violent, national election.

He is set to lead at least 17 parties in a coalition government.

Marape first became PNG's leader in 2019 after leading a walk-out on then-prime-minister Peter O'Neill.

Marape fended off similar attempts to oust him from the job the following year, before leading the country to the polls in July.

PNG's 'worst' election in living memory

The first parliamentary sitting was delayed by almost three hours while some late writs were delivered.

As the country's newly elected MPs gathered, some of the 118 seats were empty.

The results for 105 MPs were presented to parliament.

After a series of delays and extensions, vote counting is continuing in most of the outstanding 13 seats.

Extensions have been granted for electorates that need more time to declare a winner, which is not uncommon in PNG elections.

Controversy hangs over several seats where counting was interrupted or completed ballots were burned, or in areas where there is mounting evidence of vote-rigging.

The prime minister's political rival and predecessor O'Neill went to the Supreme Court in an attempt to have the parliamentary sitting delayed until counting was completed, but the bid failed.

At a ceremony at Government House yesterday, Marape's PANGU Party was invited to attempt to form government on the floor of parliament after securing the most seats of any party in the election, with at least 36.

"The greater the responsibility, the greater the mandate, the higher and greater the obligation of those of us elected to parliament, to give back the trust you've given to us," he said after the ceremony.

The election has been described by several analysts and MPs as the worst they have seen.

Marape insists the issues in the election affected all candidates evenly and said most of the country polled well, describing the issues as a "minor difficulty".

He defended the government funding of what he said was an independently run process, adding: "We have washed our hands clean of the electoral process."

But he said his government would implement changes to try to address issues with transparency and the problems with the common roll, which saw an estimated 1 million people unable to vote.

"The census that will take place in 2023, from that we will overlap with a modernised electronic voter ID system," he said.

Women return to PNG parliament for first time since 2017

For the past five years, Papua New Guinea had no female MPs, making it one of only four countries in the world where that was the case.

This election, at least two women have secured seats in parliament.

Rufina Peter has been elected as the governor for Central Province, as a member of O'Neill's People's National Congress (PNC) Party.

She took a seat on the opposition benches next to O'Neill.

At her declaration, Peter paid tribute to the women and men of her province for voting in their first female leader.

"You decided it was time to give women a chance, and so we have come into this victory," she said to applause from her supporters.

While parliament was sitting, another female candidate, Kessy Sawang, was elected in the Rai Coast Open seat.

Counting there finished this morning and her declaration was underway while her fellow MPs were being sworn in. She will join parliament when it next sits.

MPs 'camp' at private resort while public calls for basic services

Members of the new government's coalition have been gathered at an island resort in the days leading up to today's parliamentary sitting.

Marape has repeatedly said the resort gathering has been used not only for politicking but also for MPs to develop policies and priorities.

There is no shortage of issues to address.

Voters across the country are calling for better provision of basic services including education, health care and utilities.

Senior PANGU member John Rosso, the most recent deputy prime minister, said there were also national issues to be addressed.

"We're looking to deliver basic services for people, but at the same time our focus is on national affairs too, as a united Papua New Guinea," he said.

"We have a lot to address and some of the major focuses will be improving our electoral processes [and] improving law and order for the country as a whole.

"There are a lot of challenges that are in front of us."

The system of "camping" is a standard practice to illustrate and control the numbers needed to govern in PNG, where coalitions are vital and notoriously unstable.

Marape will have 18 months of clear air before other MPs can legally begin challenging him for the top seat through a vote of no confidence.

As he entered the parliament chamber, Marape was aware of the challenges ahead.

"It's not a pleasant job," he said.