The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is in mourning following the sudden death of President Baldwin Lonsdale from a suspected heart attack. Baldwin, a clergyman and the highest-ranking chief in Vanuatu’s Banks group of islands, was one of the most widely respected political figures in the country. His state funeral was attended by heads of state from Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. The Vanuatu Daily Post reported that while it was difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who lined the roughly 6-kilometre long route, there has been no similar public gathering in living memory.
Baldwin took over the largely ceremonial role in September 2014 but it was his handling of the 2015 corruption scandal (discussed previously on this blog) that elevated his standing in the eyes of the nation. The unprecedented case saw 15 MPs tried and convicted of bribery. But, when the convictions were handed down, President Lonsdale was out of the country. In his absence, the Speaker of the House – one of those convicted – was Acting Head of State, and used his powers to pardon himself and his co-defendants.
Returning to Vanuatu, a visibly shaken Lonsdale addressed the nation expressing “shame and sorrow” at what had occurred, stated that “no-one is above the law”, and promised to “clean the dirt from my backyard.” He subsequently revoked the pardons – a move that was then appealed, and upheld – and the MPs went to prison. He also dissolved Parliament and called a snap election. The case was a landmark event for Vanuatu. The convictions sent a clear message to political actors that the types of money politics that had been common in the post-independence era were no longer acceptable.
The election of the new President of the Republic of Vanuatu will be held on July 3, 2017. As outlined previously on the blog, the Electoral College that will vote a new President is made up of the 52 Members of Parliament, the Presidents of the Local Government Councils of the six provinces and mayors of the three municipalities of the country.