Peter O’Neill, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, has resigned after weeks of high-level defections from his ruling party.
O’Neill told a news conference in Port Moresby that recent changes to political allegiances in parliament had shown a “need for change”.
On Friday, O’Neill’s opponents said they had mustered enough support in parliament to oust him over a range of grievances including dissatisfaction with O’Neill’s leadership and in particular his unilateral handling of a multibillion-dollar gas deal that opponents said was a poor outcome for PNG.
O’Neill, who has been prime minister for seven years, has handed the leadership to Sir Julius Chan.
Chan, 79, is a former prime minister of Papua New Guinea, having served in the top job from 1980 to 1982, as the country’s second ever prime minister, and then again from 1994 to 1997.
His second term as prime minister was controversial for his handling of the Bougainville civil war. Chan’s government took out a contract with a mercenary organisation to crush separatist fighting in Bougainville, which led to widespread public protests.
Bryan Kramer, an opposition MP and one of O’Neill’s most outspoken critics, told the Guardian he considered the announcement a “ploy” from the prime minister to try and win back MPs who had defected from the government camp, and that he would not believe O’Neill was really leaving the top job until due process had been observed.
“He’s announced he has stepped down, but we haven’t seen a resignation letter,” said Kramer. The resignation will only come into effect once O’Neill has visited the governor general, something O’Neill said he would do in the coming days.
Writer and activist Martyn Namorong said: “Only proof of resignation of a PM is presentation of a letter of resignation to the governor general and not a media announcement.”
Kramer said O’Neill’s announcement was an attempt to pre-empt a vote of no confidence in the prime minister that opposition MPs would have called for when parliament resumes on Tuesday, which they say they had the numbers to win.
After O’Neill visits the governor general, the vacancy for the position is announced in parliament, and there will be a vote by MPs for a replacement leader.
Kramer said he was confident the opposition bloc, known as the Laguna Camp, had the numbers to elect a member of their group to the top job.
“Assuming the resignation goes through, we will have 63 [MPs on their side, compared with the government’s 48 MPs], whoever we decide on as our nominee, which is a decision that hasn’t been made yet, will be the next prime minister,” said Kramer. “It will definitely not be Julius Chan.”
“This is PNG politics, it’s not over yet,” he added.
Responding to Sunday’s events, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison thanked O’Neill for his friendship. “I have worked with Peter on three different portfolios, as the minister of immigration, as the treasurer, as prime minister. Peter has been a passionate servant of his country.”
He praised Papua New Guinea as Australia’s closest ally. “We have a special relationship, and always will. And I will look forward to working with the prime minister of PNG in the same way I have enjoyed such a strong friendship and relationship with Peter O’Neill. My simple message to Peter O’Neill, and I look forward to passing this on soon personally, is thank you. Thank you on behalf of Australia for your friendship.”
Kramer said that among the opposition’s priorities if one of their MPs were elected to the top job were the country’s crumbling health and education systems and improving the economy by stamping out corruption.
Political instability is something of a fixture in the resource-rich but poor South Pacific nation and O’Neill has seen off previous attempts to topple him.
The political crisis came to a head earlier this month after a spate of high-profile resignations by government ministers led to MPs calling a vote of no confidence in the PM.
O’Neill secured a three-week adjournment designed to stall the no-confidence vote and defended his record, labelling talk of a declining economy and living standards as “fake news”.
Last week, PNG politics was again thrown into crisis when the attorney general announced an investigation into the citizenship status of all 111 of the country’s MPs to determine if any hold dual citizenship, which would disqualify them from holding public office, after an accusation from Kramer that O’Neill held both Papua New Guinean and Australian citizenship, though he offered no direct evidence of this.
O’Neill denied these allegations and presented his PNG passport, with Australian visas inside, to the courts as evidence.
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