Tag Archives: Pacific Islands

Papua New Guinea – The Prospects of Presidentialism

The 2017 Papua New Guinea general election threw the complexities and challenges of democracy in the country into stark relief. Papua New Guinea’s elections are purportedly the most expensive per capita in the world; it is estimated that the 2012 election cost $US63 per voter, compared to a global average of $US5 per voter. The 2017 election was marred by widespread issues with the electoral roll, violent clashes, and long delays in counting for some seats. After polling wraps, ‘the election after the election’ begins; in a fragmented party system with a high number of independent MPs, governing coalitions are typically made up of large and often unwieldy numbers of parties. Ultimately, Peter O’Neill’s ‘grand coalition’ – made up of members of his People’s National Congress Party as well as various minor parties and independent MPs – managed to secure 60 votes to re-elect him Prime Minister. This contributes to a system which Ron May describes as “disorderly democracy”, and Jeffrey Steeves has called (in the Solomon Islands context) “unbounded politics”.

Papua New Guinea has a Westminster parliamentary system, inherited after independence from Australia in 1975. Westminster systems are common in the Pacific Islands region; of the 18 Pacific Islands Forum states (including Australia and New Zealand), half have Westminster systems, with presidential (or hybrid presidential) more common in the northern Pacific where the US influence is more apparent. The merits of Westminster systems in the Pacific – and specifically Papua New Guinea – have been debated at length. Westminster parliamentary traditions and Melanesian political cultures are seen by some scholars as incompatible: the combative nature of Westminster politics at odds with Melanesian traditions of consensus; the lack of a left-right political cleavage creating a fragmented party system and reducing the accountability function of a strong opposition; and geographically based political constituencies entrenching ethnic and cultural divides. Reform attempts, most notably the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC), have largely focused on strengthening the party system and reducing the frequency of changes of government, to limited effect. It has been argued by May that Papua New Guinea’s weak and fragmented party system, previously the cause of frequent government turnover, has now facilitated the rise of ‘executive government’, in which the executive exercises near-absolute power in the absence of both a strong parliamentary opposition and stringent accountability measures.

A presidential system for Papua New Guinea has been proposed in the past, notably by Governor of the National Capital District and leader of the Social Democratic Party, Powes Parkop. A presidential system has already been adopted at sub-national level in Papua New Guinea, in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, where a president is directly elected for five-year terms. Creating an executive branch separate to the legislative branch would distinguish national-level policy-making from the district-level service delivery function that current Papua New Guinea MPs tend to prioritise (and for good reason, as it is crucial to their chances of re-election). Furthermore, presidential elections would in theory focus on national policy over local interests, the former oft-cited as missing from parliamentary elections. The PNC-led government has already proven itself committed to decentralisation, and in a context with more provincial autonomy a presidential system could prove to be a national unifier. Yet a presidential system would of course not solve the issue of executive dominance as identified by May and others, and indeed has the potential to exacerbate it.

So is a presidential system the answer? A change to a presidential system would not be a panacea to Papua New Guinea’s political challenges, and could potentially give rise to other problems. Yet, in a discussion on Papua New Guinea’s political future, it is a question worth asking. The Pacific region provides potential models for political reform, including Kiribati’s hybrid system in which a directly elected president is still subject to votes of no confidence by the legislature (but a successful vote of no confidence automatically dissolves the House, creating a disincentive to overuse). As other aspects of constitutional reform, including around decentralisation and guaranteed women’s political representation, have already been raised by the Papua New Guinea government, there is potential space for debate on the structure of the political system itself.

France – The 2017 Presidential Election in the French Pacific Territories

Delivering a speech in French Polynesia during a visit to the French Pacific territories last year, outgoing President François Hollande said: “France is everywhere in the world. And when they say we go to the end of the world, I say: ‘No. We go to the end of France’.” France’s global footprint due to its overseas territories is extensive – les départements et collectivités d’outre-mer, as they are known, give France a presence in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Geographically remote and with relatively small populations, France’s overseas territories are often ignored in presidential elections, but the recent unrest in Guiana has brought them to the fore this year.

The three Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna – have a combined population of under 600,000, less than 1% of the total French population. Residents of the territories have full French citizenship, including the right to vote in French presidential (as well as European) elections, and each territory elects representatives to the French National Assembly and Senate. In French presidential elections, there is traditionally low turnout in the overseas territories. The French Pacific is no exception; French Polynesia recorded turnouts in 2012 of just 49% in round one and 59% in round two. Low turnout is perhaps to be expected given the geographical distance involved, although the most remote territory, Wallis and Futuna, usually records the highest turnout. Another factor is the deliberate boycotting of presidential elections by pro-independence groups in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Independence remains a very salient issue in the French Pacific in this year’s presidential election, with a referendum on independence scheduled to be held in New Caledonia in 2018. Anti-independence groups in New Caledonia generally align themselves with the major French conservative party (now The Republicans), while those pro-independence groups that do involve themselves with French politics tend to back the Socialist Party, in the belief that they are more sympathetic to the secessionist cause. While Nicolas Sarkozy – with a notoriously anti-independence stance in regards to New Caledonia – won significant support in the first round conservative primary there, François Fillon still won far more support in New Caledonia during the primaries than in the other French territories, winning 78% of the second-round vote in New Caledonia (Fillon lost in both Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, in the latter winning just a 5% share in the first round). After the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal which has threatened to sink his candidacy, several key political figures of the right in New Caledonia withdrew their support for Fillon, but others have rallied behind the candidate.

This is important, as the success or failure of French presidential aspirants in the territories often says more about local politics than national politics. The endorsements of local political leaders are often crucial to the outcome – which is watched closely by observers for what it says about the popularity of these local figures, rather than the candidates themselves. For example, in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Hilarion Vendegou – chief, local mayor, and a New Caledonian representative in the French Senate – endorsed Fillon in the primaries who went on to win both rounds in the locality easily.

In French Polynesia, there has been much horse-trading amongst political leaders on who to support. Gaston Flosse – a dominant figure in French Polynesian politics for over 30 years, now barred from holding public office until 2019 due to a conviction for corruption – initially supported Sarkozy, then Fillon, before eventually endorsing Marine Le Pen. Claiming this was on the basis of her support for greater autonomy for French Polynesia, he stressed this was not an endorsement of her party, but rather her as an individual. Eduoard Fritch – current President of French Polynesia, and Flosse’s former son-in-law and protégé – initially supported Alain Juppé, and has now backed Fillon despite voicing criticism of his plans to cut public service spending and vagueness on territorial issues (Fillon has said the cuts will not affect overseas territories).

Meanwhile, former French Polynesian President and the most prominent pro-independence figure in the territory, Oscar Temaru, attempted to stand in the presidential election to raise awareness of the pro-independence cause in French Polynesia. While he did not reach the threshold of endorsements needed to run, he gained the most support from elected officials in both French Polynesia and New Caledonia of any aspiring candidate. After failing to secure enough support to run, he advised his supporters to boycott the election.

Of course, neither of the two highest-polling candidates going into the first round of polling are candidates from the two major political parties, meaning the political landscape – and what this means for the French Pacific – is uncharted territory. Le Pen visited the Pacific in 2013, and has voiced support for greater territorial autonomy and compensation for nuclear testing, as well as promising a greater focus on territorial issues. The National Front’s deputy leader visited the Pacific in December 2016 and promised to respect the provisions for an independence referendum for New Caledonia under the 1998 Noumea Accord. More recently, Le Pen has responded to the protests in Guiana, emphasising her key campaign messages on law and order, security and immigration. While the party has made a concerted effort to attract voters from the territories in this election, they have historically polled far lower in the Pacific territories than in mainland France (although significantly higher in New Caledonia than in either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna).

Macron’s understanding of territorial issues has seemed shaky at times; in March, he wrongly referred to Guiana as an “island”. On recent visits to the territories of Réunion and Mayotte he has, however, promised subsidised airfares to increase links between the territories and mainland France, as well as an ambitious economic development plan. His position on New Caledonia’s political future is unclear; as Philippe Gomès, former President of New Caledonia and current representative in the French National Assembly,has said: “We do not really know his DNA.”

Whoever wins the 2017 presidential election will play a key role in determining future political statuses in the French Pacific. They will have to deal with the impending referendum on independence in New Caledonia as well as calls for greater autonomy intensifying in French Polynesia. Thus, the ramifications of the 2017 vote will extend right to the end of the France.

Palau – Women’s Representation and the Presidential Primary

On 29 September, Palau held its presidential primary race to determine which two candidates will face off against each other when the country goes to the polls on 1 November. Four candidates contested the primary election: incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Jr.; incumbent Vice-President Antonio Bells; former Vice-President and incumbent Senator Sandra Pierantozzi; and incumbent Senator Surangel Whipps Jr. In the primary, favourite Remengesau led with 49 per cent of votes cast, followed by Whipps with 39 per cent; Pierantozzi and Bells were eliminated.

With two challengers eliminated, the presidential contest is now between two brothers-in-law, as Whipps is married to Remengeseau’s sister. Remengeseau noted that it was unusual for such close relatives to be contesting against each other: “It’s certainly not in our culture, and it’s very unusual because if you follow our culture you are not supposed to be running against a family member.” Yet, while it may be unusual, it is certainly not unprecedented. Pierantozzi initially won the vice-presidency after contesting against her nephew, and commentator Bernadette Carreon noted its inevitability in small island politics: “It’s a small nation, everyone is related to each other, so I think it’s just the way it is.” Going into the 1 November election having collected around half of the primary votes cast, Remengesau appears the favourite to win.

This year has been a milestone for women’s political representation in Micronesia and the wider Pacific. In January, Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands became the first female head of government in the Pacific Islands region when she won the presidency. In March, long-serving member of the Samoan Parliament Fiame Naomi Mata’afa became the country’s (and Polynesia’s) first female Deputy Prime Minister. Palau is at the bottom of the world’s league table in terms of women’s representation, with no women in its lower house, although there are three female Senators in its upper house.

The 2016 primary election marked the second attempt at the presidency for Pierantozzi, who came third in the 2012 primary with 18 per cent of the vote. She is a well-known figure in Palauan politics, having previously served as Vice-President from 2001 to 2005. In her 2016 presidential bid, Pierantozzi highlighted economic growth as a key election issue. She also stressed the importance of increasing the number of women in Palau politics. While the presidential election will be an all-male affair – Pierantozzi again came third, although her vote share of 9 per cent was half of what she had received in 2012 – she was hopeful of women’s representation increasing in November in the House and Senate. Women make up a quarter of the 24 candidates contesting for the 13-seat Senate, and among the 33 candidates for the 16 House of Delegates seats, there are six women contesting five seats (including one running unopposed). While the highest glass ceiling for women in Palau won’t be cracked at this election, there is promise that the Senate and House of Delegates contests will result in real gains for women’s representation in the country.

Nauru – Waqa government re-elected

Nauru went to the polls on 9 July and returned Baron Waqa’s government for another term. The Pacific island nation has a population of roughly 10,000 (around 8000 registered voters) who elect 19 MPs for three-year terms from multi-seat constituencies by majority vote. There is no formal party system with parliament effectively made-up of 19 independent members. Because Nauru’s president is both head of government and head of state Waqa was re-elected to the post on the floor of parliament by 16 MPs.

Two election observer teams – one from the Pacific Islands Forum and another from the Commonwealth Secretariat – declared the election free and fair, and commended the high voter turnout. It was reportedly the first time in more than a decade that Nauruan elections had been monitored by international observers.

One reason for the heightened interest is that much of the media discussion in the lead up to the election centred on the creeping authoritarianism of the Waqa government (see this blog). Opposition MPs had previously been suspended from parliament – those under house arrest claimed their campaigning activities were curtailed – media commentary was sanctioned and foreign journalists effectively prohibited from entering the country due to high visa fees, and amendments to the criminal code made expressions of ‘political hatred’ punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. Some candidates had their employment contracts terminated – a move commonly believed to be government initiated. The fee for candidate nomination was also hiked to a level that made it prohibitive for many aspirant politicians. This latter measure was contested in Nauru’s Supreme Court, leading to the government eventually dropping the fee from $2000 to $500 (it had previously been $100).

The government has been quick to claim the result as a ringing endorsement of their record and plan for Nauru’s future. In the aftermath of the result Justice Minister David Adeang accused the international media of beating up the accusations against his government as a means of undermining the operation of the Australian Government’s offshore asylum seeker processing centre currently housed on the island. Three of the MPs who had been suspended from the last parliament – Former President Sprent Dabwido, Squire Jeremiah and Mathew Batsiua – lost their seats. Another, Roland Kun, chose not to stand – he has since been granted a New Zealand passport on humanitarian grounds (his Nauruan passport had previously been confiscated on the grounds that he had taken part in anti-government protests and had spoken out against the government in the international media).

Despite the government’s triumphalist tone, this story has a long way left to run. The Australian Federal Police confirmed a week after the election that they were still investigating Getax, the Australian phosphate dealer at the heart of an alleged political corruption scandal. Having left Nauru, Kun is said to be a key witness in that investigation. Needless to say, this is an interesting time in Nauruan politics.

 

Kiribati – New President Taneti Maamau elected

Kiribati went to the polls again last week to elect Taneti Maamau as their new Beretitenti or President. Under the two round runoff electoral system presidential candidates are nominated by members of the Maneaba ni Maungatabu (parliament) and then compete in a nation wide ballot. Maamau ran against two candidates from the ruling Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) party, Rimeta Beniamina and Tianeti Ioane, eventually winning more than 20,000 votes. The President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government.

Maamau is the fifth president of Kiribati since the country became independent in 1979. As outlined previously on this blog, Kiribati’s stability is an anomaly in a region where votes-of-no-confidence regularly topple governments. Constitutional provisions that ensure votes-of-no-confidence automatically trigger full elections are a key reason why this mechanism is rarely used in Kiribati.

Maamau’s election is significant for a number of reasons:

First, it brings an end to 12 years of BTK rule under the leadership of former President, Anote Tong. Tong had served the maximum three terms allowable under the Kiribati constitution. His advocacy work on climate change issues in particular had thrust the tiny island nation into the international spotlight. In recognition of this achievement Tong was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, the new Beretitenti will initially lead a minority coalition of 20 MPs. The BTK Opposition will have 25 MPs. Holding the new government together while attracting disgruntled MPs from the BTK is likely to be a key feature of Maamau’s first year in office. Indeed, the Coalition have expressed their confidence in winning over new members, with former President, Teburoro Tito, telling Radio New Zealand International that:

“We know that we may not work too hard to attract some of these people form the other party because they have already made indications when the election of the speaker was conducted some weeks back. So we think it is not going to be an insurmountable task for us to get numbers on our side.”

Tito’s confidence reflects the high personalised nature of Kiribati politics and the fact that political parties play a minor role in mobilizing voters. In this context being a member of government offers MPs greater access to resources that, if used effectively, can improve their re-election chances.

Third, the new government has been quick to claim a mandate for change. The nature of this change and the means by which it will achieved remains somewhat unclear. At the very least Maamau’s election represents something of a generational shift with the independence generation of politicians being slowly replaced by a new cohort of leaders. Its not that they are all gone – past presidents Tito and Tabai remain in parliament and the former is likely to be a key figure in Maamau’s government despite not holding a ministerial portfolio – but the baton is being passed on. Given the economic and social challenges that confront the island nation this is a sizable responsibility for the new man in charge and his cabinet.

Ben Graham – Marshall Islands Elections: Big Turnover, but Bigger Challenges Ahead

This is a guest post by Ben Graham.

National elections in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in November delivered unprecedented results, with many of the 33 Nitijela (parliament) members, including some veteran politicians, losing their seats to mostly younger political novices. Unofficial results, which include postal votes from Marshallese in the US, suggest that one-third of Nitijela is out, much higher turnover than in prior elections. Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, says that voters were eager for change, with the results signaling a major political shift now underway.

Most of the newcomers are in their 40s and were popular candidates among younger voters, many of whom now use social media to express their views on key issues. The new Nitijela will also have three female members—there has never been more than one.

When it reconvenes in January, the Nitijela’s first order of business will be to select a President from among its members. Several older parliamentarians, including the incumbent President Christopher Loeak, will be jockeying for the post. But with no real political parties, no formal political platforms or agendas, and such a large number of newcomers, it is uncertain who will form the government.

The small country faces very big challenges, with climate change and economic development the most pressing. Made up entirely of low-lying coral atolls and islands, the nation faces the real possibility of extinction—even within several decades—if the worst-case sea-level rise scenarios play out. Economic assistance from the US is decrementing and set to discontinue after 2023, putting pressure on government to grow the economy and mobilize new resources. This is a struggle, despite some growth in revenues from the fishing industry. Government is also trying to accelerate contributions into a trust fund it established with the US in 2004, which should help ease the post-2023 transition, but this too has been difficult given sluggish economic and fiscal conditions.

The challenges go well beyond climate change and economics. Underperformance in healthcare, education, transportation, and environmental management, and weak financial management and control of corruption, altogether highlight the need for more responsive and effective leadership. These were among the key issues surrounding the election.
Meanwhile, thousands of citizens continue to vote with their feet. Slow development progress has led to high outmigration, with entire families reluctantly leaving the islands in search of better schools, healthcare, and jobs in the US. The population has now levelled off at just under 60,000 while around 30,000 now call the US home. The 2011 census showed a clear pattern of depopulation on many atolls.

While a new national development plan and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals provide some guidance for government, it remains to be seen whether these plans will be effectively implemented, or whether a set-it and forget-it approach (as some locals call it) will prevail. There is some optimism that the new leaders will bring a renewed sense of energy and direction, but this is highly cautious optimism.

One thing is certain: the Marshall Islands’ leaders, old and new, will certainly have their work cut out for them.

Ben Graham is a former consultant and advisor in the Marshall Islands. He is from Majuro Atoll.

FSM – Elections to shape the future of the federation

On March 3 2015 the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia went to the polls to elect the 19th Congress. FSM spans an enormous ocean territory and so the logistics of conducting a ballot that includes large overseas communities in Guam, Hawaii and the mainland United States makes this an incredible undertaking. The official result has taken time to trickle through but, as usual, most of the fourteen seats were hotly contested.

The key issue for the campaign was a proposal by the Chuuk Political Status Commission to include in the ballot a vote for Chuukese independence. In effect, it would have set the wheels in motion for Chuuk to become a country in its own right. The motivations for this proposed breakaway movement are complex and deeply felt (Fran Hezel, long-time observer of Micronesian politics, has provided his views here). Ultimately, the proposed vote was removed from the ballot a week before the election to allow more time for voters to consider the issue. But, the matter will cast a long shadow over the deliberations of the 19th Congress and the choice of President in particular.

FSM has a unique federal system that reflects the history of its founding from the remnants of the United State Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (some of my other posts on this can be found here). The fourteen congressional seats are divided between the four states: Chuuk, the largest and most populous state elects six members. Pohnphei, the seat of the national capital elects four. The smaller states of Yap and Kosrae elect two each. Things get more complicated, however, as there are two types of seats, with each state electing one member for a four-year term and the others for two-year terms. Aside from longer tenure, those elected to four year ‘at large’ seats are also eligible for nomination to the Presidency.

There are no political parties in FSM and so the key to the Presidency is the voting blocks of each state. Indeed, many of the provisions in the FSM constitution were designed to counter the potential dominance of the Chuukese representatives. So, the Chuukese ‘at large’ Senator requires the votes of at least one other state to become president. Or, the other three states have to join together to elect a candidate from among their number.

The Presidency of FSM has been held for the last two-terms by Manny Mori, a Chuukese representative. But, a constitutionally mandated term limit means that FSM will have a new President in 2015. Exactly who that might be is unclear. Mori’s Vice President, Alik Alik, contested the ‘at large seat’ for Kosrae. Veteran Senator Peter Christian is the favourite for Pohnpei and former Senator Joseph Urusemal will be elected unopposed in Yap. The two candidates for Chuuk are Wesley Simina, the incumbent, and Gillian Doone.

The future of the union and the Chuukese independence movement are likely to be a key consideration for the newly elected Senators when they come to decide on who will become president. By convention, senior positions – presidency, vice presidency, speaker – have been shared between the states. But, would a return to the presidency assuage Chuukese grievances? Would a Pohnpeian presidency inflame them? Or, in the current climate, is a compromise candidate from Yap or Kosrae the best course? All of these questions and more will be on the table ahead of the first meeting of the new Congress on May 11 2015. The stakes are always high with these decisions – careers, reputations and of course national development policies are on the line – but this time around the possibility of secession means they assume greater than usual importance.

Kiribati – What does it take to become President?

2015 shapes as an important year in Kiribati politics as it will be the last of current President Anote Tong’s tenure in office. First elected Beretitenti [President] in 2003, Tong has served the maximum three terms allowed for under the Kiribati constitution and so he cannot contest the next ballot. Taking up where I left off in this post about the profile of Presidents in FSM, here I look back at the people who have been President in Kiribati and cast my eye over possible contenders for the top job this time around.

As outlined here, Kiribati is somewhat unique among Pacific Island countries in that it has enjoyed relative political stability since independence in 1979. There have only been four Heads of Government, for example, which is a marked contrast to other Pacific countries, especially in neighboring Tuvalu or Melanesia. Like nearby Marshall Islands and Nauru, the President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government. One distinguishing feature is its two-round runoff electoral system in which the Parliament nominates up to four of its members after each election to contest a nation-wide ballot for the Presidency.

All four Presidents of Kiribati are currently still Members of Parliament (MP), although, as I will discuss further below, this may well change at the next election. The first President, Sir Ieremia Tabai, was New Zealand educated and took the country to independence at just 29 years old. On the completion of his three terms his Vice President, Teatao Teannaki was elected, although some commentators believed that Tabai continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes before and after his appointment as Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 1992. Teannaki, who incidentally is much older than the other three (he was born in 1936 whereas the others were born in the early 1950s), was educated in the UK and only served one term as President. His successor, Teburoro Tito, was educated in Fiji and came from the opposite side of politics to Tabai and Teannaki (although the membership of parliamentary coalitions is fluid in Kiribati). He is also the only one of the four to be elected from a Tarawa constituency. Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati and is home to around 50% of the population. Tito was eventually defeated in a no-confidence motion, which led to the election of Tong in 2003 after a brief caretaker period. Educated in the UK, Tong has been especially vocal on climate change issues during his Presidency, which has led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

While the sample is obviosuly tiny, many of the patterns identified in the FSM post are also apparent in Kiribati. Presidents tend to be male, overseas educated from professional backgrounds, which means that even if they are not born in Tarawa they have spent most of their lives living there or overseas. It also means that they have the financial resources to compete in election campaigns. Campaigning is increasingly expensive in Pacific Island countries and the two-round runoff system means that prospective Presidents have to fund both an initial parliamentary contest and then a later nation-wide Presidential campaign. Kiribati is a geographically large country (21 inhabited islands spread across more than 3 million kilometers of ocean) and so having a national profile, often developed by performance in parliamentary debates that are widely broadcast on radio, helps. The backing of local members from each of Kiribati’s atoll constituencies is also important.

Keeping that in mind, who might vie for the top job this time around? The fluid nature of Kiribati politics makes any outcome hard to predict but we might expect that the two losers in the last Presidential campaign, Dr. Tetaua Taitai and Rimeta Beniamina, might contest again. Taitai heads up the main opposition party, of which Tito is a member, while Beniamina is a former government MP but is now leader of his own party. Taitai, who was born in 1947, is of the Tabai/Tito generation whereas Beniamina, who was born in 1960, would represent a changing of the guard. This shift would be especially significant if other independence generation politicians like Tabai, Tito and Teannaki chose to step down or lost at the next election. The current Vice President, Teima Onorio, is another possibility. Hers would be a remarkable result, however, as no women has ever been elected Head of State in the independent Pacific. For this and other reasons her candidacy is unlikely.

No doubt others will emerge throughout 2015. What makes the outcome so difficult to predict, however, is that candidates and their supporters must first win their constituency seats and in a country where political parties have little bearing on voter preferences – family and church allegiances are more important – this is not an insignificant hurdle.

Vanuatu – Choosing a president

On 2 September the search for a new President of Vanuatu officially commenced when the five-year term of the incumbent, HE Iolu Johnson Abbil, came to an end. The country now waits on the deliberations of an Electoral College comprising of all 52 members of parliament and the presidents of Vanuatu’s six provincial governments to find out whom the next president will be. Early indications are that a politician attached to the main governing party and from Malampa Province could be the front-runner to be the next Head of State. The usual process is that the Electoral Office declares the position vacant and invites applications, with political parties nominating candidates. In 2009, 11 of the 13 people who applied for the position were subsequently approved by the Electoral Office to stand as candidates. Abbil eventually won the support of the Electoral College after two days of voting.

In line with the conventions of its Westminster-inspired parliamentary system, Vanuatu’s president has historically served a ceremonial non-executive function similar to that of a Governor-General. Vanuatu is a cultural and linguistically heterogeneous country but Anglophone-Francophone cleavages have played an important role in post-colonial politics – Britain and France shared administrative responsibility for the New Hebrides colony under a ‘condominium’ arrangement until independence in 1980.[i] The early dominance of the Vanua’aku Pati in post-independent politics meant that it wasn’t until 1994 that a Francophone candidate, Jean Marie Leye, was elected president. This transfer of power and authority from English-speaking to French-speaking leaders has led some commentators[ii] to argue that despite having limited involvement in the day to day operation of government, the office has the potential to facilitate an ‘integrative nation-building processes in which marginalized minority elements are brought into high status decision-making positions’.

On the other hand, what makes the outcome of the ballot somewhat uncertain is that since 1991 Vanuatu has seen successive coalition governments who are regularly subject to votes-of-no-confidence. The current government, for example, was installed in May of this year after successfully bringing down the previous coalition in a no-confidence vote. In such circumstances, while the position itself is largely ceremonial, any such appointment is subject to intense political manoeuvring in a context where the allocation of power and patronage is finely balanced. Indeed, some commentators have argued that disagreement over how to divide the spoils of office have underpinned the collapse of successive coalitions governments since 1998.[iii] So, while in theory the government has the majority, in practice wheeling and dealing is required, especially as the expanded Electoral College alters the numbers.

One prominent example is the 2004 presidential ballot when friction between government and opposition, and within both camps, led to the election of a compromise candidate who it later turned out was under a suspended sentence for fraud (they were forced to resign weeks later).[iv] In this instance, dissatisfaction with the way the prime minister handled the matter led to the disillusionment of parliament and fresh elections. Indeed, while a ceremonial role has been the norm, the presidency of Vanuatu has been known to attract controversy. Most prominently, the inaugural president, Ati George Sokomanu, was dismissed by the Electoral College in 1989 after his decision to dissolve parliament, call elections and appoint an interim government, led by his nephew, was deemed unconstitutional (he was initially arrested and convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government, among other things, but the charges were later dropped on appeal).[v] So, while the position is largely ceremonial, and the institutional procedure for electing a new president relatively straightforward, the politics of presidential appointments in Vanuatu can be more complex and uncertain.

[i] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[ii] Levine, S., and N. Roberts. 2005. “The Constitutional Structures and Electoral Systems of Pacific Island States”. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 276-295.

[iii] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[iv] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[v] Van Trease, H. 1995. “Years of Turmoil: 1987-91” In H. Van Trease (ed.) Melanesian Politics: Stael Blong Vanuatu. Christchurch and Suva: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies and the Institute for Pacific Studies, p. 73-118.

Federated States of Micronesia – Tosiwo Nakayama and the founding of a regime

Typically social scientists think of regimes as being the product of underlying structural forces that shape institutions and subsequent political practices. However, David Hanlon’s recent biography of the inaugural president of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Tosiwo Nakayama, reminds us that the nature and character of a regime is rarely preordained.[i] Rather, it is the product of a negotiated settlement between human actors; individuals can and do make history.

The 1975 Micronesian constitutional convention brought together delegates in Saipan from all corners of the then United States’ administered United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to debate the region’s future political status. Today, we refer to these island-nations as small states but, as Hanlon reminds us, while their population and landmass may be small when compared with other countries, the region they inhabit is vast and diverse (more ‘Macro’ than ‘Micro’). Given 90 days, they were tasked with drafting and agreeing on a constitution. From the outset, logistical challenges combined with the competing interests and agendas of each delegation worked against unity. The people of the Northern Mariana Islands had already entered into separate political status talks with the United States. Furthermore, the announcement that parts of Micronesia stood to gain financially from continued United States military involvement in the region meant that the Marshallese and Palauan delegations were increasingly convinced that they would get a better deal if they negotiated alone. Despite the odds being stacked against a unified constitution, agreement was reached at the 11th hour. Throughout, Hanlon describes Nakayama, the president of the convention, as humbly, persistently and strategically building consensus through compromise and concession.

Nakayama was elected unopposed as the inaugural president of FSM. In my last post I discussed the background profile of those who hold this office. In many ways Nakayama conforms to that portrait. Born to a Japanese father and a Micronesian mother, Nakayama followed a path well trodden by leaders of his generation, first to the Pacific Islands Central School and later to the University of Hawaii. This trajectory aided the work of the convention, as many of the delegates were his former classmates. He worked for the Trust Territory administration, entered politics via the Truk District legislature and later the Congress of Micronesia where he made his mark as Senate President, thus showcasing his talents and building support for his presidency of the convention. A modernist and a quiet but forceful critic of United States rule, Nakayama was a vocal advocate of Micronesian unity.

The FSM that Nakayama brought into being did not include all of the states present at the 1975 convention – Marshall Islands and Palau ultimately did decide to go it alone – but four remained; from west to east they are Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. The concessions required to gain agreement for the constitution – the main concern of delegates was that the new national government would overwhelm its constituent states – meant that significant power remains with the states and as a result the federation has been described as ‘loose’ with national government subject to ‘all checks and no balances’.[ii] Certainly, Nakayama’s two terms in office (the maximum number allowed for by the constitution) were marked by increasing tensions between state and national government. There are no political parties in the unicameral Congress with members drawn from their respective states who, when electing a president, tend to vote in blocs. As a result, Hanlon illustrates, the president’s most important constituency is the Congress who puts them in power.

Negotiations about the distribution of power between the states and the national government have continued since 1975. There have been two subsequent constitutional conventions – 1990 and 2001 – in which agreement was sought for changes that would ease conflict between the two levels of government. However, no amendments were passed. One interpretation is that this supports the orthodox view that once instituted the rules of any regime are virtually impossible to change; they rarely bend but must be broken and a new regime founded (and rumblings of succession persist in FSM). The other is that it endorses the work of the 1975 convention and the constitution it created. In either case, as Hanlon maintains, without Nakayama it is highly unlikely that these institutions would exist in their current form.

[i] Hanlon, D. (2014). Making Micronesia: A Political Biography of Tosiwo Nakayama. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

[ii] Underwood, R. (2006). “Micronesian political structures and US models: lessons taught and lessons learned” The Journal of Pacific Studies 29 (1): 4-24