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.