Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Three-week delay for PNG electoral writs

Papua New Guinea's prime minister and electoral commissioner say the nation's election will take place as scheduled, following a massive protest in the nation's capital, Port Moresby.
Thousands of protesters marched on Sir John Guise Stadium in the heart of the city's government district today, demanding the government stop interfering in the electoral process and that it roll back laws giving parliament the power to suspend judges.
PNG's politicians last week voted 63 to 11 to delay the June 23 poll by six months after it was revealed the rolls for 41 electorates in the resources-rich highland region were incomplete.
"(Cabinet), the parliament, does not have the power to direct the electoral commissioner," Prime Minister Peter O'Neill told the crowd.
"Parliament will not interfere with the electoral commissioner."
With 51 per cent of that nation's eligible voters in the highlands, issuing the writs when the rolls aren't ready would be unfair, Mr O'Neill said.
"How do you expect them to vote, what about their rights," he said.
Electoral commissioner Andrew Trawen, addressing the crowd mostly in pidgin, said the election will go ahead as scheduled in late June, but writs will be issued three weeks late to allow for greater public scrutiny of the rolls.
"The three weeks' delay will give the voters from the Highlands equal or same opportunity like that given to voters in the Southern, Momase and New Guinea Islands regions to view and object to the preliminary rolls so that a credible roll is produced for the Highlands," he said in a statement on Tuesday morning.
Mr O'Neill also made a conditional promise to repeal the controversial Judicial Conduct Act, a law the government passed, then used to suspend the nation's chief justice, Sir Salamo Injia, and Justice Nicholas Kirriwom.
He said parliament would repeal the law provided Sir Salamo and Justice Kirriwom stepped down voluntarily.
"If they do the right thing, I will do the right thing," he said.
Both judges are currently overseeing a hearing into the government's legitimacy, and police have previously arrested Sir Salamo on charges of perverting the course of their investigation into his handling of court finances.
Petitions against a delay were handed to Mr O'Neill, Mr Trawen and Attorney-General Dr Allan Marat on behalf of Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio.
Student representative president Emmanuel Issacs told the crowd they would wait to see what parliament did next before deciding on further civil action.
The peaceful, but at times rowdy, protest was made up of a highly sceptical crowd.
While Mr O'Neill spoke, one frustrated protester could be heard shouting "It is bullshit, he is lying" over the crowd's chant of "rausim, rausim" - pidgin for "chase him out" or "get rid (of him)".
The public statements from Mr O'Neill and Mr Trawen are significant.
Mr Trawen has long been against delaying the poll, arguing the constitution spells out a strict five-year term for PNG's parliamentarians.
He threw down the gauntlet on Monday afternoon, saying he would go the governor-general on April 27 for the issue of writs despite parliament's vote.
Mr O'Neill offered the compromise delay of a month for the writs late on Monday night.
Port Moresby and social media have been rife with rumour since Mr O'Neill indicated on Saturday morning he had backed away from the vote.
The government has denied rumours of a split within its ranks and that Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah, seen by many as the architect of the vote to delay the election, had been sacked by Mr O'Neill.
A poker-faced Mr Namah sat next to a smiling Mr O'Neill at the stadium.
Meanwhile, a scheduled parliamentary sitting was cancelled when an insufficient number of MPs turned up today.
Parliament is expected to resume tomorrow at 10am (AEST).

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