Tag Archives: vanuatu

Vanuatu – Nation mourns President Baldwin Lonsdale

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.

Vanuatu – President calls snap election amid bribery scandal

JACK CORBETT & KERRYN BAKER

For the past few months the tiny island nation of Vanuatu has been gripped by a bribery scandal that has ultimately led to 14 of 50 MPs – all from the government side – facing lengthy prison time after being convicted under both the leadership and penal codes (another MP received a suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty). As a result, Vanuatu’s President, Baldwin Lonsdale, has dissolved the country’s parliament and called a snap election. The bribery case revolves around payments made by the Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses to his fellow MPs during 2014, when they were all members of the opposition. Carcasses claimed that the payments were for development purposes but the court decided otherwise.

At the root of this scandal is the perpetual “vote of no-confidence” issue that has bedevilled Pacific Island governments since independence. As previously outlined on this blog, most Pacific Island democracies are renowned for having weak or non-existent party systems. Instead, politicians rise and fall on the strength of their own personal appeal. A number of factors are important for prospective MPs seeking to generate the profile and reputation to win an election in Vanuatu, including family alliances, churches and community involvement. But, increasingly money politics is crucial. As a result, getting elected in Vanuatu can be incredibly expensive.

For prospective Prime Ministers, however, getting elected is just the start. In the absence of strong parties the leader who can cobble together a coalition forms government. Typically, this coalition building process, both in Vanuatu and across the Pacific region sees considerable amounts of money change hands with MPs either recuperating their campaign costs or stockpiling funds for next time around. Once installed, however, coalitions are precarious. The choice of only a few MPs to switch sides can topple a government. Money becomes an important means of inducing MPs to either stay or go.

This game has been going on for years. What makes this case so interesting is that it is the first time these practices have been subject to legal scrutiny. One observer noted: “Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the current case is the fact that it was prosecuted in the first place.” It marked the first occasion that politicians had been tried under the Leadership Code Act. Among the convicted were numerous high-profile figures: several Cabinet Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, as well as the Speaker of the House.

The bribery case and its outcome have also prompted several tests of the limits of presidential power. 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 the powers granted to him in this position to pardon himself and his 13 co-defendants. These pardons were revoked by Lonsdale, a move that was then appealed, and upheld. Then, on 24 November, Lonsdale dissolved Parliament and called a snap election. The opposition has challenged the legal basis of the dissolution, and this case will be heard in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of this challenge in the courts, what is clear is that the bribery case is a landmark event for Vanuatu. The convictions have sent a clear message to political players and may have long-term ramifications for Vanuatu politics.

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.