Papua New Guinea’s parliament heard Tuesday that neither of the two men claiming to be prime minister holds the post, in a fresh twist to a political crisis that has gripped the nation since last year.
Veteran Sir Michael Somare, 76, and his younger rival Peter O’Neill, 47, have been locked in a dispute over the position since a court ruled in December that Somare was the legitimate leader, despite O’Neill being appointed by MPs.
At a special sitting of parliament on Tuesday, Deputy Speaker Francis Marus said a second Supreme Court ruling last week that Somare was prime minister should be respected.
But he quickly added that since Somare, known as the “Grand Chief” after dominating PNG politics for more than 40 decades, had missed three consecutive sittings of parliament, he was disqualified from the position.
“This means there is now a vacancy in the office of prime minister,” Australian Associated Press quoted Marus as saying.
“Tomorrow, therefore, is when a new prime minister will be appointed — nominations for the office of the prime minister will be first on the agenda for tomorrow.”
The move comes as PNG prepares to go to the polls, set to begin on June 23, to elect a new government.
O’Neill became prime minister in August after being elected by lawmakers following Somare’s family saying he had resigned from office while seriously ill in Singapore following heart surgery.
But after recovering, Somare returned to Papua New Guinea and pressed for his reinstatement, leading to December’s Supreme Court ruling that his removal from office was unlawful.
Asked to rule again on the matter, the Supreme Court last week repeated its view that O’Neill’s appointment was illegal, leading to charges the judiciary was politically biased.
Two of the judges involved in the ruling have since been charged with sedition.
Despite the turmoil, O’Neill, who has refused to step down, is believed to have the support of most parliamentarians and has effectively remained in control of the impoverished country which is on the brink of a major resources boom.