Political commentators across the Pacific wait with bated breath for the official results to emerge from the snap general election that was held in Vanuatu on 22 January 2016.
The troubled nation experienced considerable political uncertainty in 2015. The country was left in turmoil following President Baldwin Lonsdale’s decision to dissolve parliament in late November 2015. This decision came on the heels of a tumultuous year in which parliament only sat once, the nation was battered by one of the worst natural disasters in its history, and 14 government MPs were convicted on bribery charges, including former prime ministers Serge Vohor and Moana Carcasses.
In October 2015, Vanuatu’s Supreme Court found that deputy prime minister Carcasses had been dispersing cash deposits equating to USD $452,000 throughout his ring of MPs over the previous year. The chaos increased further when the speaker and acting president Marcellino Pipite – who was himself one of the accused MPs – unilaterally decided to pardon the 14 MPs whilst President Lonsdale was overseas.
Lonsdale quickly revoked the pardons on his return and the group were eventually convicted, but the damage had been done. Recognising that parliament had become so embroiled in its own dysfunction that it was failing to meet the requirements of basic service delivery to the populace, Lonsdale was forced to make the difficult choice of calling a controversial snap election in a cyclone-ravaged country that could scarcely afford it. Decisive action, he reasoned, was the only means by which the disastrous political trajectory of the previous year could be turned round.
The elections have not been without incident. The Vanuatu electoral office reported that it had been allocated some USD $142,000 less than it required to hold the election, leaving the office in a difficult position to meet the demands of vote collection and processing. There were also a number of concerns surrounding the inadequate state of the electoral roll, which had not been updated to reflect deaths ensuing since the 2012 election due to difficulties in getting relatives to confirm the status of deceased voters.
Nonetheless, the Commonwealth observer group, who were tasked with the unenviable job of monitoring the understaffed and under-resourced elections, reported that voting on 22 January was more or less peaceful. The chairman of the group, Hubert Ingraham, noted that the electoral office managed the voting process quite well, despite the numerous challenges posed by conducting an election at short notice across some 80 remote islands.
It should be noted, however, that the five-member observer group could not feasibly monitor voting on each of the islands. Allegations of irregularities have been made concerning the voting process in a number of the outer islands. Dr Willie Tokon from Transparency International Vanuatu reported several incidents of suspected bribery, including propositions from one candidate to donate sums to a children’s party, promises from another to donate roofing iron, and threats of closure to local schools if voting did not favour particular MPs. In spite of the 10-20 allegations of corruption, there seems to be a general consensus across the monitoring groups that this was “one of the best and the cleanest elections we’ve had in years”.
Meanwhile, official results have not yet been released. It has been rumoured that several long-running MPs are set to lose their seats. The release of preliminary results has confirmed that former speaker and parliamentary veteran Philip Boedoro has lost his the seat of Maewo to a first time candidate, whilst former justice minister Robert Bohn – the only one of the 15 MPs accused of corruption in 2015 to walk free – lost the seat of Epi. Many of the old guard have been re-elected without incident, with interim prime minister Sato Kilman, opposition leader Joe Natuman, and former attorney-general Ishmael Kalsakau resuming their posts.
The question as to who will form government remains fraught. Frantic discussions have allegedly been going ahead all week between coalition powerbrokers such as Natuman, Ralph Regenvanu and Kenneth Natapei, the architects of an uneasy alliance between the conservative Graon mo Jastis Pati and the democratic socialist Vanua’aku Pati. To gain a majority in the 52-seat parliament they will have to woo at least seven independents in order to form government.
In a country with a history of coalition breakdowns and an itchy trigger finger hanging over the no confidence motion, the struggle to form government may well foreshadow a difficult period of in-fighting and compromise before Vanuatu receives the strong governance it so desperately needs. It remains to be seen whether Lonsdale’s gamble will pay off.
Sally Andrews is the Indo Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: The Commonwealth (Flickr: Creative Commons)