Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill survives vote of no confidence

MPs voted to keep leader by margin of 85 votes to 21 after debate turned into a shouting match and speaker shut off microphones

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill survives vote of no confidence

The Papua New Guinean prime minister has resoundingly survived a vote of no confidence despite nationwide protests and strikes by pilots, transport workers, and doctors.

After more than two years of political crisis over a long-running corruption investigation culminated in police shooting at students at a protest last month, the parliament sat on Friday to determine the future of Peter ONeill.

The opposition leader, Don Polye, had been nominated as an alternative leader but both he and ONeill were prevented from speaking after the parliamentary debate was shut down.

The supreme court had ordered the parliament to be recalled to vote on the oppositions motion, and huge crowds of Papua New Guineans queued on Friday morning to attend. Police have been placed on high alert.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill survives vote of no confidence  Eric Tlozek (@EricTlozek) July 21, 2016

Crowd waiting to attend vote of no confidence in PNG Parliament this morning @RAPacificBeat @abcnews

Legislative changes by ONeills government had previously lengthened to 30 months the period of time during which such a vote could not be called against a sitting prime minister.

ONeill was confident he had the numbers to survive Fridays vote, with at least 60 but up to about 80 of the 111-strong parliament.

After heated debate descended into a shouting match, the speaker shut off microphones and allowed no further motions.

A vote was called and MPs decided to keep ONeill as leader by a margin of 85 to 21.

Public dissatisfaction with ONeill came to a head last month after a boycott of classes by students at PNG universities, who called for ONeills resignation.

Police fired live ammunition into a crowd attempting to march on parliament last month and shot a number of students. Protests escalated and vehicles and buildings were torched in violent clashes, during which one student was killed.

The academic year was cancelled at one campus, but protests continued. Pilots and doctors joined the strikes.

During Fridays debate the deputy opposition leader, Samuel Basil, accused ONeill of not allowing parliament to debate issues, citing the no confidence motion eventually ordered by the supreme court as an example.

He is destroying parliaments right of debate, right of decision making, and right to hold the [leadership] accountable, said Basil.

Kelly Naru, the governor of Morobe, spoke in support of ONeill and questioned the constitutionality of the court order on parliament. He said ONeill was entitled to the presumption of innocence. He called protesters of recent weeks domestic terrorists and urged that they face the full force of the law.

Ben Micah, who had defected to the opposition ranks, said the situation in PNG was escalating beyond control and urged the parliament to listen to the striking pilots, doctors and nurses.

We do not see the pain people out there are feeling, he said. It makes government become oblivious, arrogant, insensitive to what our real responsibility should be.

Government MPs had spent the past week at a camp in Alotau, Milne Bay province, ostensibly to discuss and review policy.

Quarantined from the influence of opposition members in Port Moresby, the camp has released several statements of support for ONeill, but questions have also been raised about the presence of departmental heads and reports of fast-tracked payments to provincial leaders.

Despite having only about 20 in the ranks, opposition members claimed confidence as several former prime ministers including grand chief Sir Michael Somare publicly moved to their side.

Under PNG law an alternative prime minister must be voted for when no confidence is expressed in the leader.

The deputy opposition leader, Samuel Basil, had earliersaid his side was confident the government will change on Friday, despite Polye not being announcedas an alternative candidate until parliament began the debate on Friday.

This was not unusual, said Sean Dorney, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute and former ABC correspondent for PNG.

Its often down to the wire, and its often the night before, Dorney told Guardian Australia before the vote.

There have been instances that on the night before the team you thought was going to take over has split irrevocably.

A week ago Id have said there was so much upheaval and carry on was because [ONeill] couldnt be defeated in parliament.

Those who want to get rid of ONeill will go to any lengths to do it. Now it actually appears that stranglehold may not be what it was two weeks ago.

Dorney predicted the vote would result in a peaceful transition to a new prime minister or acceptance of ONeill remaining as leader. Despite previous military involvement in leadership stoushes, it was unlikely that would occur in this case, he said.

With ONeills remaining as prime minister, eyes will focus on the massing groups of students, civil society groups and disaffected citizens who had called for his resignation.

The political crisis stems from a 2014 arrest warrant for ONeill to present for questioning about a long-running corruption investigation into government payments made to a Port Moresby law firm. He has been accused of authorising the payments.

Papua New Guineans have been angered by ONeill refusing to be questioned and taking extraordinary action including sacking top government ministers and officials and disbanding anti-fraud bodies.

Hes not the quintessentially evil person his critics are painting him as but what hes allowed to arise is this belief that hes placed himself above the law, said Dorney.

ONeill has said the investigation into him is ridiculous and claimed he was simply exercising his constitutional right to challenge the warrant.

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