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  • Vanuatu
  • Howard Van Trease (bio)

In many ways, 2014 in Vanuatu was much like any other year: periods of political instability with rumored votes of no confidence, one leading to a change of government; accusations of fraud and corruption; and court challenges. At the same time, there were periods of relative calm and moments of proud achievement with the introduction of a new system to elect municipal councils that guarantees women a third of the seats and the smooth election of Vanuatu’s eighth president, and celebration when Vanuatu was finally connected to the Southern Cross undersea cable, providing a new level of communication to the rest of the world.

Compared to previous years, the population of Port Vila woke up a bit earlier in 2014 after the usual quiet Christmas/New Year holiday period, due to the election of a new Municipal Council, scheduled for 7 January. The vote was significant, since it was to be based on an amendment to the Municipalities Act (Municipalities [Amendment] Act 11 of 2013), approved by Parliament the previous year, which guaranteed that 30 to 34 percent of municipal council seats were to be reserved for women (Van Trease 2014, 545). The new law applies to the two existing municipal councils in Vanuatu—Port Vila and Luganville—and any future municipal councils that might be established. The procedure subsequently approved by the Council of Ministers allows voters in each municipal ward (five in Port Vila, for a total of seventeen seats) two votes—one for a general list consisting of both male and female candidates and a second for a list reserved for female candidates only.

While interest seemed high, voter turnout was low, common for municipal elections in Vanuatu, with only 35 percent of the 28,691 registered voters casting their ballots. The counting of votes for the general seats is based on a system of proportional representation reflecting the number of candidates fielded by the different parties, while the seats reserved for women are determined by first past the post—one seat for each of the five wards. The results reflected those of the Port Vila constituency in the 2012 general election, when the parties then in Opposition—now the current government—dominated. The Vanua‘aku Pati (vp) won 5 seats, Green Confederation 5, Union of Moderate Parties (ump) 4, Graon mo Jastis Pati (gjp) 2, [End Page 544] and there was one independent (vdp, 18 Jan 2014; Republic of Vanuatu, Official Gazette).

The ump, vp, and gjp signed a memorandum of understanding to run the Municipal Council (vdp, 20 Jan 2014). One of the ump councilors, Ulrich Sumptoh, defeated a Green candidate for the position of mayor. This was not surprising given the failure of the Greens (led by then Prime Minister and Member of Parliament [mp] for Port Vila Moana Carcasses) to follow through on a preelection agreement whereby the gjp would forgo running candidates for the general seats in the southern ward in return for the Greens not running a candidate for the woman’s reserved seat. The Greens, in fact, ran an independent candidate on the general list, who won the seat, costing the gjp an expected victory (Republic of Vanuatu, Official Results). The failure of the Green Confederation to honor this agreement with gjp on municipal-level politics had a carryover effect nationally. It signaled the perception that the leaders of these two parties were no longer as close as they once appeared to be.

There was no evidence of any reluctance to accept the new voting system, and therefore, for the first time in Vanuatu’s electoral history, thousands of both men and women voted for and elected multiple female candidates to political office. It should be noted that women do not use their numerical power to unite in support of female candidates but rather seem to follow the men in their families. As a result, since independence, only five women have been elected to Parliament and a similar number to the municipal councils of Port Vila and Luganville. The election was indeed revolutionary in Vanuatu’s electoral history and a first among Pacific Island countries as a whole.

Except for the National United Party...


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pp. 544-556
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