Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:38 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 12:38 | SYDNEY

Melanesian politics: Stael blong Vanuatu


Jenny Hayward-Jones


20 November 2012 18:38

A parliamentary vote in Vanuatu yesterday saw Sato Kilman re-elected by 29 to 23 votes as Prime Minister following the 30 October elections. His People's Progressive Party won only five seats in a 52-member parliament (pictured) but Kilman proved to be a superior deal-maker in putting together a nine-party coalition.

In all, 16 parties and 4 independents are represented in the parliament – this for a country of 260,000 people. Any coalition in this multi-party parliament is inherently unstable. Prime Minister Kilman had the upper hand over his main competitor for the job, Edward Natapei, over much of the life of the last parliament but managing the high expectations of individual members of parliament in a nine-party coalition will prove more complex.

I have a book edited by Howard Van Trease on my shelf with the same title as this post ('Stael blong Vanuatu' means 'Vanuatu-style'); the book describes the 1991 elections in Vanuatu as the first evidence of a Melanesian style of politics replacing the artificial dominance of a single political party. Yet its authors did not foresee and would likely not recognise the increasing 'Melanesianisation' of Vanuatu politics today.

For much of the first twenty years of Vanuatu's independence (the 1980s and 90s) Vanuatu's parliament was dominated by, first, the Vanua'aku Pati and then by a series of unstable and revolving door coalitions composed of the Francophone Union of Moderate Parties, the National United Party, the Melanesian Progressive Party and the Vanua'aku Pati. 

Unusually for Melanesia, these parties campaigned on policy platforms and usually enforced the kind of party discipline integral to most Westminster parliamentary systems. 

But Melanesia-style cargo politics existed alongside this strong party system and gradually much smaller parties and independents emerged to contest elections in the 21st century, diluting the dominance of the major parties. Vanuatu's political scene has become increasingly similar to Papua New Guinea's complex politics. A record 34 parties contested the election for 52 seats, more even than the 22 parties which endorsed candidates for the 111 parliamentary seats on offer in PNG's July 2012 elections

As in PNG, a number of parties were formed as a vehicle for campaigning by a few individuals rather than for ideology or policies. Tales of cash changing hands and of influence from external players are hard to prove but if true, would be a further sign of Vanuatu adopting PNG-style politics.

The most damaging consequence of the fracturing of Vanuatu's political landscape is a familiar one to PNG and to Melanesia: the more time Prime Ministers have to spend holding their coalitions together, the less governing they get done. Even for PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, who has the luxury of an 18-month grace period before he can be challenged, holding his coalition together will occupy much of his time.

As in PNG, generational change at the top level of politics has been slow to come in Vanuatu. A number of old hands and former prime ministers – Sato Kilman, the Vanua'aku Pati's Edward Natepei, the UMP's wily Serge Vohor – were re-elected.

The country's young people, however, are likely to have their eye on 43 year old Ralph Regenvanu, the Port Vila-based Australian National University graduate and former Vanuatu National Cultural Centre Director who attracted in excess of 1000 votes more than any other candidate in the country. 

Regenvanu maintained a high profile in his first parliamentary term, serving as a minister at times. He is ambitious and offers a younger constituency a more effective voice in the parliament than that often delivered by the country's leaders. Whether he has what it takes to rise to the top job however, is less certain.

Photo by Flickr user PhillipC.