Papua New Guinea: Chief or Prime Minister off-and-on since December 1975

Michael Somare was returned to power for a fifth time at the 2007 general election, after becoming the first prime minister since independence in 1975 to serve a full five-year term.  Somare has said he intends to retire before the completion of his current term, but he has taken no concrete steps to anoint a successor.  Although his 13-party coalition controls a sizeable parliamentary majority, a string of scandals, some of which directly involve the prime minister, points to a high likelihood that he will be forced from office before he has a chance to do so.

Born on April 9, 1936, in Rabaul, East New Britain, he trained to be a teacher at Sogeri Education Center.  After holding various primary and secondary teaching posts and taking more training, he assumed a post as deputy headmaster, but then shifted to a career in radio journalism and broadcasting.

His political career began in 1968 when he won the East Sepik regional seat in territorial parliament as head of the newly formed centrist party Pangu Pati (PP).  Somare served as chief minister of the Self-Governing Territory of Papua and New Guinea during 1972–1975, and became the first prime minister of independent Papua New Guinea in 1975.  He was forced from office by a no-confidence vote in 1980, but returned in 1982.

Somare became the leader of the opposition in 1985, a position he held until 1988, when he resigned as PP leader in favor of Rabbie Namaliu, who became prime minister.  He served as minister of foreign affairs in Namaliu’s government (1988–1992), and then returned to the post of PP leader when that regime fell.  In 1993, he resigned as leader of PP once again, this time in favor of Jack Genia, and also resigned from the party, but he returned two years later and was named governor of East Sepik Province.

In 1997, the PP’s parliamentary caucus booted him from the party, and he accepted an invitation to head the newly formed National Alliance Party (NAP).  He was re-elected to Parliament and then served in Morauta’s Cabinet, first heading Foreign Affairs and Bougainville Affairs, then as head of Mining and Bougainville Affairs.

Somare has been directly implicated in some of the many scandals that have dogged his administration since he was re-elected in 2007, and his persistent attempts to short-circuit independent investigations or quash the findings of various inquiries reinforced the perception that he is guilty.  Somare’s effort to prevent PNG’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Ombudsman Commission, from referring a case involving alleged irregularities in his personal finances to the public prosecutor failed, but his parliamentary allies have used procedural maneuvers to protect the prime minister from answering to allegations that he did not file complete tax returns for more than a decade.

Nevertheless, Somare is coming under pressure from within the NAP to retire.  Among those who prefer a change in leadership ahead of the next elections, which are required by May 2012, is Don Polye, who had announced his intention to challenge Somare for control of the party shortly before a planned no-confidence vote in mid-2010, but was named to replace Puka Temu as deputy party leader and deputy prime minister after the latter crossed the floor and was named leader of the opposition.  However, some factions within the party believe that the chances of winning another term will be improved if Somare, who for all of his faults is a seasoned political leader with an impressive track record in elections, remains at the helm.  Still others favor holding a party-wide election to choose Somare’s replacement.