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  • Vanuatu
  • Howard van Trease (bio)

Following one of the most tumultuous years in Vanuatu's history with the trial, conviction, and imprisonment of fourteen members of Parliament (mps) on charges of bribery and corruption, there was some hope at the beginning of 2016 that things could only get better, though remnants of past events still remained to be dealt with. Unfortunately, the country faced serious economic problems stemming from the destruction brought in March 2015 by Cyclone Pam—a category five storm that ravaged the archipelago's eastern and southern islands as well as the nation's capital of Port Vila. The surprise dissolution of Parliament in November 2015, which triggered a snap election, was not welcomed initially but did have the effect of finally removing the discredited caretaker government of Sato Kilman and allowing for a fresh start with a host of new politicians (Van Trease 2016, 484–487).

Despite the short time between when the election was announced (21 November 2015) and the actual voting day (22 January 2016), the electoral process itself proceeded in the normal way with few problems, though the voter turnout was low—a [End Page 361] mere 57 percent of registered voters compared to 70.4 percent in 2008 and 63.2 percent in 2012. Likewise, several political parties faced difficulties in organizing their campaigns, due in part to the fact that their leaders had been imprisoned. Indeed, fifteen members of the last Parliament were banned from contesting the election—the fourteen who had been convicted plus Willy Jimmy, who pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence. Under section 42 of Vanuatu's Leadership Code, when a leader is convicted of a breach of the code and is dismissed from office, "the leader is disqualified from standing for election as, or being appointed as, a leader of any kind for a period of 10 years from the date of the conviction" (Leadership Code Act 2006). The selection of candidates was made more difficult in some cases when it was rumored that several imprisoned individuals attempted to influence decisions from their cells.

As a result of the confusion, fewer candidates contested the election—270, representing a total of thirty-seven parties plus sixty-two independents—compared to 349 candidates in 2008 and 345 in 2012. Nevertheless, the number was still large enough to have an impact and to split the vote, as has been the pattern since the 1990s, to the extent that no single party was able to gain a majority in the fifty-two-seat Parliament. The result, once again, was the need to form a coalition government. It should be noted that the majority of the parties were newly created (ie, they did not contest earlier elections), fielded very few candidates, and only received a small percentage of the total votes cast. The results were divided as follows: 58.7 percent for the top ten parties, 22.8 percent for the remaining twenty-seven smaller parties, and 18.5 percent for the sixty-two independents (Republic of Vanuatu 2016; Early 2016).

The root of the problem lies in the fact that Vanuatu's political culture has undergone a significant change since the early days of independence, when politics was dominated by only two main parties—the Vanua'aku Pati (vp) and the Union of Moderate Parties (ump)—with the vp wining a majority of the seats in 1979 (the election just before independence) and again in 1983 and 1987. Vanuatu uses the Single Non-Transferable Vote (sntv) system for its nine multi-seat constituencies and First Past the Post (fptp) for the remaining eight single-seat constituencies. The sntv was adopted to provide a degree of proportionality, as required under the constitution, and worked well during the 1980s. In 1991, however, the vp split, with the result that no single party obtained a majority, therefore requiring the formation of a coalition government—the pattern that has existed since that time (Van Trease 2005).

The bribery case and imprisonment of elected mps was obviously a prominent issue during the campaign, but it is clear that it did not have an overwhelming impact on the results. There was not a major swing against...


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