The past year has tested Vanuatu’s economic and political resilience. Following the devastation wreaked by Category 5 Cyclone Pam in the island archipelago in March, economic recovery was elusive and made harder by months of political instability and constitutional uncertainty. October saw 14 members of parliament convicted for bribery, including the deputy prime minister, and an attempt by one of the convicted MPs to grant himself and his associates a presidential pardon. Eventually judicial independence and constitutional integrity won out, but the year’s hardships crippled the functioning of the national administration and delayed the passing of a 2016 national budget.
The snap election on 22 January 2016 promised a new chapter for the country, but it is still unclear whether the election result will facilitate the political stability needed to kick-start economic recovery.
The election embodied Vanuatu’s prevailing political culture: localised and clientelistic policy platforms, widespread patronage, political fragmentation, and a proliferation of small parties. Some 36 parties contested the election, along with 60 independent candidates, a record number. The official election results, announced earlier this week, indicate the unstable coalition politics that have plagued Vanuatu’s Parliament and disrupted government functions for more than two decades are likely to continue, although there is still time to run in the 21 days the victorious parties and independent MPs have to form a government.
The 52-seat parliament is constitutionally protected from dissolution during its first 12 months, however, in the absence of political integrity legislation, whatever coalition government is formed this time around will again be subject to the vagaries of political opportunism and late-night kava bar deals. The profusion of small political parties, the low total of seats won by established parties (six on average ), and the emerging ‘kingmaker’ status of the Independents (who look set to claim eight seats), foreshadows fragile coalitions and continued instability. There are likely to be only short windows for policy reform, and the functions of government will again be vulnerable to disruption.
Well-established parties, including the Vanua’aku Pati, and the National United Party, have announced coalitions with younger, populist parties such as the Graon mo Jastis Pati to consolidate a new government of ‘Reunification for Change’. If successful, the bloc’s immediate policy agenda may include reforms to the Representation of the People Act and the potential re-uptake of political integrity legislation. Other proposed alliances have been less forthcoming about possible national reform priorities. Whatever the outcome, what Vanuatu needs most right now is a focus on state-building for the benefit of all its citizens, rather than short-term interventions based on political patronage.
Only 18 of the 52 MPs elected are incumbents, and the election results attest to an emerging new political profile for MPs, with a number of reform-minded former senior public servants set to take their seats in the new parliament. This presents an opportunity for a more robust national policy debate at the highest level. With several of these ‘new’ politicians elected under an independent or small party banner, the direction of reforms and allegiances will not be known until parliament sits on 11 February. Training of the new MPs will need to be a priority for the Vanuatu's 11th legislature.
With Cyclone Pam’s destructive visit only 11 months past, economic recovery must be high on the agenda for all MPs. The contested distribution of cyclone relief efforts (and the bribery charges against 16 MPs) were behind the June 2015 motion of no-confidence that ended 14 months of relative political stability. With the economy still yet to recover significantly, and Cyclone Pam relief funds rumoured to be still unspent, remedying the economic situation will be the first big test for the new Vanuatu government. This is a singular priority given that just last week, several international airlines cancelled routes to Port Vila’s Bauerfield International Airport, Vanuatu’s main international entry point, due to poor maintenance of the airport’s only runway. This is likely to put a dent in tourism revenues for several months, another blow for this tourism-dependent island economy.
Despite concerns before the event about electoral roll inaccuracies, low voter turnout rates and inefficient processes, the 2016 election demonstrated Vanuatu’s active democracy at work. International observers praised the Vanuatu Electoral Commission for running a peaceful and orderly election, noting the vote counting was transparent and that the media played a positive role throughout the electoral process.
If Vanuatu’s newly elected MPs can instill political confidence via the formation of a nationally-minded, stable coalition government, and steer the country back to a path of steady economic recovery, then the people’s investment in the 2016 election will have paid off.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO