Parliament speaker gets the boot in PNG election

9:12 pm on 18 July 2017

As vote counting continues in Papua New Guinea's national election, the speaker of parliament is set for defeat in his electorate.

Mr Zurenuoc, a member of the ruling People's National Congress party, has lost the Finschhafen seat where the Pangu Pati's Rainbo Paita is soon to be declared winner, following a tight election that went down to elimination on preferences.

The speaker of the Papua New Guinea parliament, Theo Zurenuoc.

The speaker of the Papua New Guinea parliament, Theo Zurenuoc. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The speaker began the last parliament with the People's Progress Party but soon defected to the party of the prime minister Peter O'Neill.

Mr Zurenuoc was initially a popular choice for speaker but soon created controversy with his plans for a major reformation of parliament guided by his religious faith.

As part of his reformation, Mr Zurenuoc ordered the removal of significant cultural carvings and a totem pole from the national parliament in 2013.

In the face of a public outcry, he justified the removal by claiming carved heads on the parliament facade were associated with a pagan, animist background, and therefore "evil and ungodly".

Mr Zurenuoc, one of a cabal of devout evangelical Christian MPs in the house, ordered the removal of the heads as part of his campaign "to restore, reform and modernise parliament".

"Papua New Guineans have a very close affinity to the spiritual world," he told RNZ International at the time. "We believe in spirits, but there are good spirits and bad spirits."

The front facade of Papua New Guinea's parliament featuring recently removed anthropomorphic carved heads on the front lintel.

The front facade of Papua New Guinea's parliament featuring recently removed anthropomorphic carved heads on the front lintel. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Undeterred by criticism, the speaker led a large PNG delegation to the United States to receive a 400-year old King James bible which was donated to parliament.

Back in PNG, the bible was received at parliament in a lavish ceremony presided over by Mr O'Neill and given a guard of honour by the defence force.

Resurrection

Mr Zurenuoc is not the only senior PNC member getting the boot in this election at the hands of a Pangu Pati candidate.

The PNC's deputy leader and incumbent Fisheries Minister, Mao Zeming, has been unseated by Kobie Bomoreo in Tewai Siasi, a Morobe province district, like Finschhafen.

Mr Bomoreo was declared winner of his seat today, and Mr Paita is expected to follow within a day or so.

The pattern continues in Madang province where Pangu's candidate Bryan Kramer is on course to oust the Minister for Petroleum and Energy, PNC's Nixon Duban, within the next day or two.

Mr Duban has filed a late petition to stop the counting of the remaining last eight ballot boxes in the Madang Open electorate.

Despite his insistence that the Returning Officer conduct a thorough check of votes counted, it appears the writing is on the wall for Mr Duban's departure from parliament.

Pangu Pati, which had few MPs in the last two parliaments, is enjoying a remarkable resurrection under its new leader Sam Basil who, as expected, has already won election in his Morobe district of Bulolo by a landslide.

After the declaration last night of the seventeenth seat in PNG's 111-seat parliament, Pangu had three MPs, the PNC had six, and the National Alliance had won two. With two more MPs from its Morobe stronghold, Pangu has surged to five.

Polling station in Bulolo District, Papua New Guinea national election 2017.

Polling station in Bulolo District, Papua New Guinea national election 2017. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

This lengthy election has been plagued by many allegations of ballot fraud, polling and counting irregularities and flaws in the electoral roll, especially in the Highlands region.

These are expected to form the basis of myriad election disputes once results in all the seats are declared and the writs returned. For the next week or two however, the focus will increasingly turn to the intensive lobbying underway to form a new coalition government.

Overall, the PNC is trending strongly in more seats than either the Pangu Pati or the National Alliance. But if the latter two parties join forces, and combine with other like-minded smaller parties, they could still mount a strong challenge to form a new government when parliament sits early next month.

Both Mr Basil and the National Alliance leader Patrick Pruaitch have signalled their intention to form a new government that does not include Mr O'Neill and the PNC.