James Marape (L) is sworn in as the new PM by Governor General Bob Dadae on Thursday. Vanessa Kerton/ AFP
Papua New Guinea lawmakers overwhelmingly elected James Marape as prime minister on Thursday — a former finance minister who resigned in protest against a massive ExxonMobil and Total gas project.
Marape won the landslide backing of members of parliament after weeks of political manoeuvring that saw eight-year prime minister Peter O’Neill resign.
“Honourable members, I now declare that the member for Tari Pori James Marape has been elected as prime minister-elect of the independent state of Papua New Guinea,” said parliament speaker Job Pomat, announcing Marape’s 101-8 victory.
In a Facebook post early on Thursday Marape vowed to make Papua New Guinea “the ‘richest black Christian nation’ on earth” and to put the “national interest ahead of personal and corporate interest.”
His victory is likely to spell continuity in many fields, but it could bring changes to energy policy and relations with neighbouring Australia.
One of Asia’s most impoverished nations, Papua New Guinea is rich in natural resources, including large gas fields.
The ExxonMobil and Total Papua LNG project, signed in April, would almost double Papua New Guinea’s gas exports.
Marape -- who comes from energy-rich Hela province — has indicated he would like to redistribute the spoils of the contract.
Resigning in April, Marape’s cited difference with O’Neill on “work and policy related matters” as well as the lack of local “participation in our gas, oil sector” and mining industry.
He has also been critical of “corrupt contracts” with Australia to settle asylum seekers on tropical island camps and demanded an investigation.
“Since we put our hands up to assist Australia in 2013 ... we sacrificed Manus’ reputation as one of the world’s safest tropical islands” he was quoted as saying in February.
Lowy Institute analyst Jonathan Pryke said Marape’s appointment signals continuity, but key policies could be revisited.
“Of all of the likely outcomes from today, this one actually signals the most continuity,” he told AFP.
“We will likely see, however, recent agreements signed with Total energy over a new LNG project reviewed and renegotiated.
“I don’t think Marape is hostile towards the natural resource sector, but he is eager to see the benefits going to the highlands, to landowners and to the PNG people to be maximised.”
Much may hinge on who Marape appoints to his cabinet and how much delay the policy rethink takes.
Energy analysts have warned that any delay to the LNG project could make it less attractive, with similar projects in Africa and Latin America competing to meet the same projected market shortfall in the mid-2020s.
The challenge to Marape has gathered traction over recent days with the government weighed down by dire levels of debt and little progress in negotiations with resource companies to secure a greater share of wealth for the country.
Tens of thousands protested across Papua — on the western half of New Guinea island — as anger over racism and fresh calls for self-rule fuelled mass demonstrations and violent clashes with security forces.
Somare died on Feb.26, aged 84, just weeks after he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He served as leader four times and was the country’s first prime minister after Papua New Guinea (PNG) gained independence from Australia in 1975.
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