Vanuatu, one of Australia’s near neighbors, went to the polls today for an early election. Parliament was dissolved in August, only two and half years into its four-year term, when prime minister Bob Loughman faced defeat in a no-confidence motion following defections among his supporters. An opposition challenge to the dissolution was rejected by the supreme court.
We’ve noted before the paucity of coverage of South Pacific politics in the Australian media. In this case I have to confess to a share of the blame, since this is the first time Vanuatu has made an appearance in this blog. So first a quick look at the background.
For most of the twentieth century, Vanuatu (then called the New Hebrides) was governed jointly by Britain and France. Independence, which the French were much less keen on (being concerned about it spreading to nearby New Caledonia), came in 1980; in common with much decolonisation at the time, power at first went to a radical left, anti-western movement, Vanua’aku.
But democratic government survived, and Vanua’aku split and lost office in 1991. Somewhat moderated, it returned to power in 1998, and since then it has participated in most governments and provided several prime ministers, including Loughman, the incumbent. Other parties have come and gone, although the Union of Moderate Parties, descended from the pro-French side in the independence debate, also remains a major player.
The electoral system encourages a degree of fragmentation, being something of a compromise between British and French ideas of democracy. Most MPs (44 out of 54) represent multi-member constituencies, ranging from two to seven members each, but there is no explicit proportionality; each voter gets just one vote, and the candidates with the most votes are elected. (The other ten are elected by first-past-the-post from single-member constituencies.)
This method, sometimes called the single non-transferable vote, helps minorities and guards against the lopsided majorities produced by pure first-past-the-post systems, but it still randomises the relationship between votes and seats. At the last election, in March 2020, the Leaders Party of Vanuatu topped the poll with 12.5% of the votes, a few hundred votes ahead of Vanua’aku, but in terms of seats it only came equal fourth with the UMP, winning five.
The largest number of seats, nine, went to the conservative Land & Justice Party, which had placed fourth with 10.0% of the vote. Vanua’aku, with 12.1%, won seven, as did the Reunification Movement for Change (a breakaway from the UMP), with 11.3%. The National United Party (the original breakaway from Vanua’aku) had 3.7% and four seats, while another 13 parties won one or two seats each.
To its credit, the Vanuatu electoral commission, in its report on the last election, recommended a move to proportional representation, pointing out that more than half the voters failed to have their choice of candidate elected and gently suggesting that the current system is unconstitutional (the constitution requires that there be an “element of proportional representation”). It also noted the disturbing fact that the 54 members elected were all men, as they have been since 2012.
As you might expect with 19 parties represented, governments tend to be short-lived and to consist of unwieldy coalitions. They are also notoriously corrupt and unresponsive, a sadly common problem in the region; numerous MPs, including several past prime ministers, have been convicted of bribery and other offences. Now the short time frame for an early election has also created major challenges.
Unlike the cases of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, Australia had no colonial responsibility for Vanuatu, but as the major regional power we can hardly escape blame for our lack of concern at the state of south Pacific democracy. The point was brought home last month when the Solomon Islands government moved to delay the scheduled 2023 election until the following year, citing the strain on its logistical capacity.
Australia quite reasonably offered financial assistance to help hold the election in 2023, but this was angrily rejected by Solomons prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, who described it as “an assault on our parliamentary democracy” and “direct interference by a foreign government in our domestic affairs.”
Given our past lack of criticism for authoritarian governments in the region – in Fiji, Nauru, Tonga and elsewhere – he may have just been surprised that Australia would care about whether he held elections or not. Penny Wong’s comment that Australia has a “longstanding and historical commitment to supporting democracy” is far from the truth. Let’s hope she is seriously interested in remedying that.