May 24, 2019 / 9:32 AM / 2 months ago

PNG opposition says new defections mean it has enough support to oust PM

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Opponents of Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said on Friday they had mustered enough support in parliament to oust him over a range of grievances including a gas deal with France’s Total, which critics have questioned.

FILE PHOTO: Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill speaks during the APEC CEO Summit 2018 at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 16 November 2018. Fazry Ismail/Pool via REUTERS

Political instability is something of a fixture in the resource-rich but poverty-stricken South Pacific nation and O’Neill, who has been leader since 2011, has seen off previous attempts to topple him.

Defections from the ruling coalition have been going on for weeks and on Friday, at least nine members switched sides, according to two ministers who were among them.

“It’ll only be a formality,” defecting Commerce Minister Wera Mori told Reuters, referring to what he said would be O’Neill’s removal after parliament reconvenes on Tuesday.

It is not clear whether Mori and his colleagues would seek to move a no-confidence motion, for which there is a complex procedure, or whether by controlling parliament they can trigger O’Neill’s resignation.

O’Neill’s office had no immediate comment but has previously expressed confidence it has the necessary numbers in parliament.

Mori, speaking by telephone from the Laguna Hotel in the capital, Port Moresby, where the opposition has been based for weeks, said that with Friday’s defections, O’Neill’s opponents could rally 62 members of PNG’s 111-seat parliament to vote him out.

“We’ve got a lot of issues, that’s the reason why we’re changing the government,” Mori said, when asked the reason for the move against O’Neill.

The opposition has cited unease about the recent natural gas development deal with France’s Total and its partners as one of the reasons behind the bid to unseat O’Neill.

Finance minister James Marape defected in April in the wake of the gas deal, later told PNG’s National newspaper he quit because the agreement gave too much ground to the energy firms.

Total did not immediately respond to questions.

Police Minister Jelta Wong said he had also resigned on Friday and the opposition now had enough support to control the floor of parliament - though that would not be clear until the house reconvenes.

“Nothing is set in stone until the 28th,” Wong told Reuters.

“We’ll see how we go.”

Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Robert Birsel

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