Papua New Guinea PM plays down leadership challenge

Port Moresby (AFP) –


Papua New Guinea's embattled prime minister insisted he still had the backing of his party Monday and can avoid being turfed out of office in a vote of no confidence.

Peter O'Neill could face a vote on his eight-year premiership after parliament returns Tuesday, following a string of high-profile political defections.

Hitting out at "self-interested individuals," the 54-year-old said in a defiant statement that he was "very confident that we have the numbers to continue to govern."

O'Neill's detractors accuse him of micromanaging and using the office to further his own interests.

They are in a race to secure 56 votes needed from the 111 members of parliament to force the motion of no confidence.

O'Neill's opponents are believed to be around four votes short of the number needed to depose him, but lobbying behind the scenes has been frantic, and the ground could shift quickly.

The ministers of finance, defence, health and forestry are among those who have already defected -- along with a string of MPs and influential provincial governors.

Regional or tribal alliances can outweigh party allegiances. But the prime minister said he believes he has the votes to survive.

"At present we have more than 60 members of parliament meeting together as part of our government," he said.

Momentum against O'Neill has been building for months, but has come to a head with the end of an exclusion period for no confidence votes and the inking of a multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) project with France's Total and US firm ExxonMobil last month.

Opponents say the deal does not benefit local communities enough and they want a review.

O'Neill's long tenure in office has brought unusual stability to Papua New Guinea's fractious politics.

His tenure has also been marred by rampant corruption, high levels of crime and large-scale investments that ran up public debt but showed little benefit for ordinary Papua New Guineans.

The country has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. A little over one in 10 Papua New Guineans have access to reliable electricity.