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PNG election could end political stand-off
This year's election in PNG could decide the political stand-off between the two men who claim to be prime minister.

Politics has always been a pretty robust in Papua New Guinea. And while the country's sometimes come close to the edge, it's always managed to recover with its democratic processes intact.

And while the country's sometimes come close to the edge, it's always managed to recover with its democratic processes intact.
THOM COOKES, REPORTER: Several thousand angry young students are on the march in Port Moresby. They're angry over what they see an attempt by government to grant themselves sweeping new powers.

UNIVERSITY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA STUDENT: University Papua New Guinea students oppose the Judicial Conduct Bill that was passed by Parliament on Tuesday. We feel that it is an abuse of constitutional power. We feel that the principle of separation of powers has just gone down the drain.

SOLDIER (talking to Peter O'Neill): Morning, sir.

THOM COOKES: The new law gives the Government the power to suspend Supreme Court Judges it suspects of bias. It is just the latest blow in an on-going row between two men who both claim to be the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.

When Sir Michael Somare, PNG's founding father, was ousted by Peter O'Neill, the Supreme Court ruled in Sir Michael's favour. But the O'Neill Government has simply ignored the court ruling.

In the past, PNG's democracy has muddled through spectacular fireworks, but there's deep concern over the most recent manoeuvring the.

DR RON MAY, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: Nobody before has defied the Supreme Court and then the retrospective legislation; the latest move to change the arrangements for supreme court judges is a second piece of retrospective legislation.

Now, a government that has a majority in parliament but chooses to use that majority to amend virtually any legislation to give it control over the legislature and the judiciary is something I think we've got to worry about.

(Footage of people at polling booths)

THOM COOKES: In just a few months, Papua New Guinea is heading for the polls. When the campaign starts just about everything else stops.

For many remote communities, getting their candidate into Parliament is like winning the lottery.

And getting enough MPs to form a government is the biggest prize of all.

PAUL BARKER, PNG INSTITUTE OF NATIONAL AFFIARS: We are in a situation where basically, it is a sort of winner takes all. and that's part of the problem. There's no real sharing here. Both sides want to be in power for that period before the elections.

THOM COOKES: Some members of Peter O'Neill's government are keen to delay the vote to give him the best chance to shore up their support. In PNG that often means literally buying votes. And being in government gives them a crucial advantage.

PAUL BARKER: The flow of funding, including these electoral funds, well they're not meant to be electoral funds, but these district grants, they seem to flow more readily to members of parliament who are on the government side. That's been our experience over many years., it shouldn't be the case, but that's been the experience over many years.

THOM COOKES: In talk of delaying the vote provoked a furious response from Australia's new Foreign Minister.

BOB CARR, AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: You've got Australia placed in a position where we with would have no alternative to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea. We would be in a position of having to consider sanctions.

THOM COOKES: Bob Carr's call for sanctions caused outrage in the PNG Government. And he was forced to issue a clarification saying that his choice of language was wrong.

But according to Ron May it was a reasonable response to a deteriorating situation.

DR RON MAY: I think it was a reasonable response. I mean, what people fail to realise I think is everybody is referring to the government of Papua New Guinea. Well, it is the government in the sense that it has the numbers in parliament, but it is also a group of people that the Supreme Court has decided shouldn't be there.

So by going along with the O'Neill-Namah coalition, as Somare has pointed out, Australia is basically supporting a government that got there by dubious means.

And then when people start talking about postponing the election, these are pretty serious concerns.

THOM COOKES: At the best of times, running an election in PNG is difficult. Much of the country is extremely rugged and the poor road terrain means officials and ballot boxes are often flown in by helicopter.

The last elections in 2007 were relatively peaceful, a marked contrast from the chaos of 2002.

(Footage of elections)

BELDEN NAMAH, PNG DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER (Newsline, Feb 28): How many times do Australians media say that there will be bloodshed, there will be trouble in Papua New Guinea during elections? And how many times we've proven them wrong? We will continue to prove them wrong.

DR RON MAY: In parts of the highlands there is a build up of weapons going on. There are candidates who have virtually private armies going around trying to recruit supporters and ultimately enforce the vote. But I think we'll get through the election okay.

But this election is very important because it is the only way that we will really be able to resolve the present impasse. An election is the only way we're going to resolve that sort of situation.

THOM COOKES: Elections in PNG are always fought on intensely local issues and there's always a very high turnover, with usually over half the parliament losing their seats.

All of which means after the vote Sir Michael Somare and Peter O'Neill may not even be starters in the next contest to form a government.
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