What's her future?

POINT the camera, pick a frame, and observers can soon find scenes to illustrate any one of the wildly juxtaposed narratives playing out on the streets of Port Moresby this past week.

Powder-keg, perilous Papua New Guinea: Cue pictures of roadblocks and convoys of riot squads. Tense-jawed soldiers and troop carriers bristling with weaponry. City offices emptying and business grinding to a halt as white-collar workers respond to security alerts urging citizens off the streets, the well-shod retreating behind the razor wire of their home compounds.

Such images inspire grim reflections from market analysts on the repercussions for the resources boom on which the fragile nation's future is staked.

Coming on the back of months of political mayhem as the deposed Michael Somare administration and the usurping Peter O'Neill government enlist the courts, the Parliament, the public service, the police and now the military in a ferocious, paralysing power struggle, ratings agency Standard & Poor's revises its outlook for PNG's long-term sovereign credit rating from stable to negative.

One market intelligence expert tells The New York Times that the Somare faction's unashamed incitement of the mutiny risked escalating tensions and recriminations against military and political figures.

The Somare side's strident justification - a Supreme Court judgment declaring that Somare's removal from office while undergoing medical treatment in Singapore last August was illegal - hasn't cut them any slack internationally. Or, so far, saved them domestically.

Despite 76-year-old Somare being held in warm regard as a political veteran and founding father of the nation, his team has been on the nose with disenchanted voters for years.

O'Neill has capitalised on the hunger for change and clings determinedly to power - and all the perks of incumbency it delivers to his party's campaign for re-election in four months' time - courtesy of a strong majority in the Parliament, popular support (despite some whiffy affairs of their own) and the loyalty of key institutions.

Indifferent, unruffled PNG: Women valiantly hanging out their washing in the drenched tropical breeze. Taxi drivers snoozing under yesterday's newspaper headlines of ''MUTINY!''. Street traders spruiking betel nut. Grimy buses overloaded with business-as-usual passengers. Kids skylarking in the public pool.

This PNG comprises a community of good, embattled citizens who gird themselves against the political crap and the social hardships with resourcefulness, humour, warmth, kinship, irreverence and a perverse pride in their nation's ability to confound. A popular bumper sticker features a pistol and the slogan: ''Baby Glock On Board.''

''Storm in a teacup,'' the visa gatekeeper at Jacksons airport cheerfully assures posses of incoming journalists. Flashpoints come and go in PNG with all the predictability of a tropical downpour and he wonders why we've come, observing that local television didn't even interrupt the cricket to broadcast news of the short-lived mutiny last Thursday.

And while the drama spurred a sharp spike in hits to the site of popular local blogger and quirky new-generation political observer Martyn Namarong, at day's end he tweeted that ''the most popular post I had today [on Facebook] wasn't about the coup, but about getting laid''.

Unfathomable, bizarre PNG: A small band of erstwhile rebel soldiers handing over their stolen weapons to the restored defence chief, who, only days ago, they had ordered to open the armoury so they could plunder it before detaining him at gunpoint.

Then cameras roll as the same mutineers are immediately granted pardons (get-out-of-jail-free cards) by the leaders of the government they had been momentarily persuaded to topple. Perhaps they can thank those distant jumpy market analysts, on whose comfort and advice unimaginable resources wealth relies - ''what repercussions''?

Or perhaps they are the beneficiaries of a game of brinkmanship now in stalemate.

While O'Neill has thundered that political conspirators behind the mutiny will face ''the full force of the law'', the Somare chiefs who have publicly declared their hand in it remain at liberty. Not so lucky is their foot soldier and fall guy, retired colonel Yaura Sasa, who was captured and detained in a high-security jail on a charge of inciting mutiny until securing bail yesterday.

Forgotten, failed PNG: Ragged child beggars. Open sewers running through urban settlements. Raskols roaming the streets, numbed by dope. Page five of Tuesday's Post-Courier reports a re-emergence of leprosy in five provinces, including the national capital. But it's still a minor problem compared with the devastation being wrought by tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, malaria and other preventable diseases.

These are all real PNGs, but all wrong if seen in isolation. Listen to the nation's leading thinkers, political stalwarts, upstart bloggers and veteran commentators, and there emerges another narrative, one that underwrites all others.

It is one of systemic failure, institutional inertia and ineptitude, and of a Parliament hostage to a political and social culture that dooms the policy initiatives and structural reforms that they all insist are critical if PNG is to rescue a functional future for its exploding population of almost 7 million citizens.

The mutiny was no storm in a teacup, they say, but symptomatic of these deep-rooted issues. Despite the quelling of this latest drama, it's far from over, though how it will manifest next is anyone's guess.

The great fear is that it will poison the forthcoming election, an always fraught and sometimes violent five-yearly event scheduled for the middle of this year, although there is speculation the timing may be changed.

This reality of PNG is harder to see and photograph, though it can be glimpsed in the clapped-out hospitals and roads, schools and civic buildings. It's not captivating in a daily news sense, not least because it's culturally challenging for outsiders to begin to grasp, and technically it's deeply complicated.

But according to veteran PNG political observer Dr Bill Standish, of the Australian National University, the legacy of the failures of successive governments to tidy up legislative black holes and attend to critical issues such as electoral boundaries will have far-reaching and potentially destabilising consequences.

A constitutional emergency is taking shape that threatens to explode with the looming poll. The pile of unfinished business before the Parliament in Waigani includes the two new provinces of Jiwaka and Hela (the latter a notorious highlands hot spot and home to the $A15 billion PNG liquid natural gas project), failure to implement the required number of open seats (there are now 89, whereas the law requires 110-120), failure to fix a legislative hole repealing the seats of provincial MPs, and stymied progress on a widely supported bill to make PNG an inclusive democracy with the creation of 22 reserved women's seats, one for each province.

These are not mere academic problems. There is an argument that the entire membership of the next Parliament risks being unconstitutional.

Women's groups angry at the deadlock on implementation of their 22 seats are threatening to take these issues to court to challenge the legality of all the Parliament if their long-fought battle to force their way into the male-dominated legislature is not sorted out.

This PNG reality is why the maternal mortality rate has become among the worst in the world. It's why the undisputed blight of systemic, endemic corruption impoverishes the vast majority of the population, robbing them of essential services. It's why bridges collapse and scarce roads fracture, and why victims of crime and violence are denied the most basic justice. It's all about institutional decay, argues Dr Henry Okole, a senior research fellow with PNG's National Research Institute and an expert on the nation's politics, and it must be tackled urgently with a comprehensive review of the entire political structure.

On the day of the mutiny, the Post-Courier carried the second part of a detailed paper by Okole arguing that this decay - stemming from the failure of the legal system, government processes and the public service to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of PNG society - underwrote the current impasse, and that it would ''continue to incapacitate the state system if not addressed promptly''.

He goes on to catalogue a myriad of other failures: the collapse of the parliamentary committee system, money politics, the realpolitik that requires most MPs, whether they like it or not, to align themselves with the government to ensure they get access to the pork-barrel resources of incumbency. Indeed, this is the issue at the heart of the current desperate struggle for power.

Another key issue is the relationship of voters with their MPs, Okole says. This has to be understood in the context of PNG's modern political history. ''Political institutions that were developed and refined over hundreds of years elsewhere were introduced to PNG in less than 20 years'', and superimposed on thousands of diverse ethnic and social groups from the 1950s. A hybrid political culture emerged- with one foot in traditional societies and one in the modern state.

''Voters choose their representatives primarily out of expectation that this MP is going to give back to them individually or to their community,'' Okole tells The Age. ''They see a need for a road, that is what they demand. Which is fine. But it means a lot of MPs are more concerned about what they need to do for their constituency, rather than concentrating on their primary role as legislators.'' Hence the lack of attention to national issues.

''In the tribal settings, MPs are required to participate in a lot of feasting, to buy plane tickets, pay for funerals. The MP, for his political survival, has to attend to these things. To pay for that you have to be on the government side to get the perks and privileges. So there is a gravitational pull to the executive side.''

The question of how to create healthier relations between MPs and voters is the first of four critical issues he identifies as contributing to the current political impasse and likely to continue to burden the next government unless tackled. The other three are weak parties, weaknesses in the way the political process is designed (one of the most critical being a Westminster model, but with no upper house of review) and opportunism by people in power.

Whether fallout from last week's mutiny might exacerbate these chronic issues, or just become a sidebar to a chaotic evolving political history, is now the subject of intense discussion among experts and ordinary citizens alike.

Some say that a coup is not a possibility in a fractured society of 800 languages and intense clan loyalties. How would any side ever get the numbers?

But blogger and commentator Martyn Namarong, whose perspective draws on the drums of the increasingly active PNG social media commentariat, is not so sure. He argues that ''before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Papua New Guineans had a form of social networking known as the Wantok (one-talk, or clan) system. The Wantok system is still alive and well and, as other actors like Sasa get embroiled in the political saga, the Wantok network that gets dragged into the impasse enlarges …

''As the main protagonists drag on with their tortuous tango, more Sasas are likely to enter the fray as ordinary people become increasingly frustrated with the impasse.''

Namarong goes on: ''What began as a political issue is fast becoming a social issue and threatens social order throughout the country.

''Perhaps it is fair to say that the nation is now more unstable than it ever was. More people are becoming politicised, polarised, and pissed off. It is imperative that fresh elections be held soon to diffuse the situation.''

Jo Chandler is a senior writer.

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