PORT MORESBY (Reuters) - The elder statesman of South Pacific politics, Michael Somare, won a second straight term as Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister on Monday, promising to help Pacific neighbours stand up for their sovereignty.
A coalition of parties led by Somare’s National Alliance party secured 86 votes in the 109-seat Parliament, defeating a rival group led by former prime minister Julius Chan and Somare’s former treasurer Bart Philemon.
Somare, 71, Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister at independence in 1975, has now won the position four times. But his victory will do little to help his country thaw its frosty relationship with its biggest aid donor Australia.
“I am happy to lead once again this large but manageable coalition government,” Somare said after his election win.
“We will guard the sovereignty of our country, we will help our neighbours whenever we can.”
Despite his win on the floor of Parliament, Somare now faces a legal challenge, with the courts due to decide on Friday whether his National Alliance leadership is valid.
His victory came six weeks after voting started in Papua New Guinea, a Pacific nation of about 6 million people with vast mineral resources but where most people lead subsistence lives in villages, with about 40 percent living on less than $1 (50 pence) a day.
Somare now leads a country with simmering tensions over an influx of Chinese immigrants, ongoing law and order problems and concerns citizens are missing out on any benefits from an economy growing on the back of strong mineral resource prices.
Australia, which provides more than A$350 million (146 million pounds) a year in aid to PNG, has angered Somare, the Solomon Islands and Fiji with its determination to stamp out corruption and crime in the South Pacific, and its demands Fiji return to democracy after a military coup in December 2006.
Somare accused Australia of election meddling after Canberra called on PNG to release a secret report into how lawyer Julian Moti, wanted in Australia on child sex charges, escaped PNG to the Solomon Islands on a PNG defence force plane.
Somare has refused to release the report and denies he was involved in Moti’s escape. But local media said the report blames Somare and recommends the prime minister face charges. Moti has since been appointed attorney-general in the Solomon Islands.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra remained unhappy about Moti’s escape from PNG and repeated calls for Somare to release the report into the incident.
“We would hope with Sir Michael Somare reappointed as the prime minister, he would now publish the board of inquiry’s report into the Moti affair so that everybody could have a good look at it,” Downer told Sky News Australia.
Analysts said Somare’s anti-Australia comments were likely to have played well at home and sent a strong message to Canberra to reconsider the way it manages its South Pacific relationships.
“The lesson for Australia is to be less heavy handed,” Australian National University foreign policy analyst and former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin told Reuters.