August 3, 2012 / 6:21 AM / 7 years ago

Papua New Guinea's O'Neill endorsed as prime minister after lengthy election

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea’s parliament endorsed incumbent Peter O’Neill as prime minister after long-running national elections on Friday, ending a prolonged period of political uncertainty in the Pacific island country.

O’Neill won with support from an overwhelming 94 of the nation’s 111 members of parliament after last week joining forces with political rival Michael Somare, ending a feud that left the country with two prime ministers for much of 2011.

O’Neill was also supported by two other former prime ministers, Paias Wingti and Julius Chan, in a move that should give the country a new level of political stability as it manages a boom in investment in resource projects.

“The coming together of O’Neill and Somare is likely to see a reconciliation in the political process which the country very much needs,” Pacific analyst Annmaree O’Keeffe told Reuters.

“I think you’ll have that economic certainty, or reassurance.”

Papua New Guinea (PNG), an often volatile nation of 6.5 million people, is home to a $15.7 billion (10.11 billion pounds) Exxon Mobil gas export project, and the giant OK Tedi copper mine which began production in 1987, as well as the Frieda River copper project, run by Swiss-based global miner Xstrata.

Exxon’s liquefied natural gas project is expected to start production in 2014 and boost gross domestic product by about 20 percent.

Despite its resource wealth, the country has struggled to pass on development benefits to its people, with about 80 percent of the population living on subsistence village farming and small cash crops.

O’Neill, the son of a law officer, was raised in a remote village, northwest of the capital, Port Moresby. As a child, he had to walk 15 km (9 miles) to school. He wore his first pair of shoes when he was 16.

His People’s National Congress party won 27 seats at the elections, the most of any party, on the back of his push to deliver more free health and education services.

O’Neill’s former deputy, Belden Namah, a former military officer who in May led soldiers and police into the nation’s courts to arrest the chief justice for alleged sedition, now becomes the main opposition leader.

O’Keeffe said she hoped the election result would give the government a chance to fight corruption and address social issues.

Elections are held every five years in PNG. A record 3,435 candidates ran for the 111 seats in parliament, with about half of sitting members losing their seats.

Writing by James Grubel; Editing by Robert Birsel

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