The people of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu will be voting nearly two years early after President Nikenike Vurobaravu dissolved parliament. This came on the heels of the potential ousting of Prime Minister Bob Loughman when a motion of no confidence was proposed by opposition leader Ralph Regenvanu.
The possibility of losing control of government by an opposed parliamentary majority — 29 members out of 52, according to Mr. Regenvanu — prompted Mr. Loughman to seek to dissolve parliament and return the fate of his job to the Ni-Vanuatu people.
In just forty years of independence, Vanuatu has had twenty-four prime minister terms, with several people serving multiple times. Most of these prime ministers were ousted in motions of no confidence or lost in elections before becoming prime minister again at a future point.
While Mr. Loughman’s fate is unknown, Vanuatu is continuing its legacy of back-and-forth democracy with the tug of war between the opposition seeking to remove the prime minister and the prime minister seeking the president’s approval to hand the direction of the country back over to the people.
Mr. Regenvanu rejected the dissolution of parliament, saying it hijacks the will of parliament that should have control over the head of government. Despite his protestations, President Vurobaravu went ahead and handed the reins of government to the people. Mr. Loughman hopes he can convince the people he represents that he remains the best option to lead Vanuatu, while Mr. Regenvanu hopes that if he is unable to thwart a new election, he can convince the Ni-Vanuatu people that they should respect the opinion of parliament and vote out Mr. Loughman and his party.
With yet another snap election looming, Vanuatu will be thrown into a political war once again, continuing its path of reactionary governance.
Independence and early conflict
Vanuatu was colonized by both France and the United Kingdom, creating two different colonial identities that caused several post-independence flare-ups. Even prior to its national sovereignty, Vanuatu was a source of contention for France and the UK, with the former wanting to maintain more direct control of the islands — then called New Hebrides — and the latter wanting to allow its independence movement to grow.
Under the joint New Hebrides Condominium, France and the UK were supposed to enjoy relatively equal control of the islands. This changed after France’s defeat to Nazi Germany in World War II. With the French incapacitated, the UK moved to increase its influence on the islands.
After the war, greater British control of the islands remained, with France focused more intensely on its colonies in what was then French Indochina. The New Hebrides Condominium was reestablished, though much weaker and understaffed than its predecessor.
Economic development programs were implemented, but failed to propel Vanuatu into commercial prosperity. With colonial powers unable to deliver the successes needed to maintain the status quo, independence movements began to pop up.
Vanuatu’s first political parties
The first pro-independence of Vanuatu was Nagriamel, led by Jimmy Stevens (who consistently opposed Vanuatu’s government after it gained sovereignty) and focused on gradual economic growth that would push Vanuatu to support itself after independence. France was generally supportive of this party and backed future endeavors that threatened the unity of Vanuatu.
Shortly after Nagriamel was founded, Raga Anglican priest and Ni-Vanuatu politician Walter Lini founded the New Hebrides Cultural Association, later renamed the New Hebrides National Party (NHNP). The United Kingdom was more supportive of this party, which wanted to achieve independence more swiftly and forcefully than Nagriamel.
The NHNP won Vanuatu’s first election in November 1975 (prior to independence), a victory that was denounced by Mr. Stevens, who threatened to form a secessionist movement that would create two countries out of New Hebrides. This turned out to be an empty threat, though Mr. Stevens would become more forceful in the near future.
With its first victory in 1975, the NHNP rebranded to become Vanua’aku Pati (VP), meaning “My Land Party.” In March 1977, there was a trinational conference in London to lay out the path for Vanuatu’s independence. The VP boycotted this and the subsequent 1977 election, given that it already had de facto control over several islands. Violence erupted, but ended after a compromise was reached to create a new constitution and hold new elections in 1979.
The VP comfortably won the 1979 election, setting the date of July 30, 1980 for Vanuatu’s independence. Mr. Stevens, whose Nagriamel party suffered a significant defeat in that election, formed the short-lived Republic of Vemarana in early 1980 in response. The British and French sent troops in July, though the French remained irresolute on Vanuatu’s independence, effectively nullifying the force’s effectiveness.
While still battling a secessionist force, Mr. Lini met the independence deadline, creating a parliamentary republic with a president as head of state, replacing the colonial Resident Commissioners that occupied the same position. The brief Coconut War broke out between Vemarana and Papua New Guinean troops, who were requested by Mr. Lini to help end the conflict. Mr. Lini won the next two elections (in 1983 and 1987); Mr. Stevens was imprisoned.
Vanuatu was marred by political infighting from before its independence, and this trend has continued through the rest of its history up until today.
Prime minister turnarounds
Intense political conflict did not end at independence, and with a functioning parliamentary republic, key players were willing to use the legal powers at their disposal to effect the changes they wanted on Vanuatu and its government.
Prime Minister Walter Lini lost power to a challenger from his own Vanua’aku Pati party, Donald Kalpokas. Factionalism within the VP allowed Mr. Kalpokas to declare that he was the true leader of the party, not Mr. Lini. His tenure lasted only a few months, and Vanuatu’s anglophone government was replaced by the francophone Maxime Carlot Korman of the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP), an offshoot of Jimmy Stevens’s Nagriamel party.
Mr. Korman twice traded power with Serge Vohor, a liberal francophone also of the UMP. Mr. Vohor came back to the prime ministry in 2004, and made his legacy by establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, irking the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
During this third time in office, Mr. Vohor was ousted in his second motion of no confidence, which he unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court.
Mr. Vohor was succeeded by Ham Lini, who governed for one term before losing in the 2008 election to Edward Natapei of the VP. Parliament launched several motions of no confidence against Mr. Natapei; despite failing to remove him over five times, he was expelled in December 2010. (His position was briefly occupied by Mr. Vohor after Mr. Natapei failed to inform parliament of his absences in 2009.)
Sato Kilman of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) succeeded Mr. Natapei. He was removed by a motion of no confidence and replaced by Mr. Vohor after just half a year in power, but that was determined to be invalid. This invalidation was invalidated, meaning that Mr. Kilman returned to power after a 10-day interim period with Mr. Natapei as prime minister.
After Mr. Kilman resigned in March 2013 ahead of a planned motion of no confidence, Moana Carcasses Kalosil of the Green Confederation was elected prime minister. Mr. Carcasses was the first non-Ni-Vanuatu prime minister.
Mr. Carcasses strongly supported West Papuan independence, which has sought self-governance for decades after being annexed by Indonesia. Mr. Carcasses governed for just over one year before being removed in yet another motion of no confidence, this time to fellow political newcomer Joe Natuman of the VP. After a similar amount of time in power, Mr. Natuman lost his motion of no confidence to the veteran politician Sato Kilman.
Mr. Kilman’s final term as prime minister was more chaotic than any others’. He lost reelection in 2016 after several MPs were arrested for corruption, including former Prime Minister Carcasses. (Three former prime ministers were later pardoned: Charlot Salwai, Joe Natuman, and Serge Vohor.)
Mr. Kilman was succeeded by Charlot Salwai, who was later arrested, then pardoned. His term ended the same way it began: he lost the 2020 election to current Prime Minister Bob Loughman of the VP after being charged and convicted of perjury, the crime for which he was pardoned.
Clearly, Ni-Vanuatu politics are a complicated jumble of parliamentary motions, scandals, and resignations. Even now with Mr. Loughman as prime minister, he is just as at risk as all of his predecessors.
Prime Minister Loughman had to deal with the devastation left by Cyclone Harold and the arrival of COVID-19, which the country had tried to avoid. On the political side of his job, he had to face other serious threats.
Mr. Loughman lost the support of his coalition after failing to amend the constitution to extend the term of parliament, change the strict definition of a Vanuatu citizen, and increase the cabinet size by nearly one-third.
These legislative failures cost Vanuatu an estimated 3.7 million vatu (US$32,000) because MPs and cabinet ministers are paid when parliament is in session, even if nothing is accomplished.
With his inability to achieve his parliamentary goals, Mr. Loughman sought to persuade President Nikenike Vurobaravu to dissolve parliament as opposed to facing a motion of no confidence, which likely would have ousted him.
The Council of Ministers accepted this reasoning on August 12, encouraging Mr. Vurobaravu to hand Mr. Loughman’s fate over to the Ni-Vanuatu voters.
Loughman v. Regenvanu
Ultimately, President Vurobaravu granted Mr. Loughman’s request and dissolved parliament on August 18, cutting Mr. Loughman’s tenure nearly in half. A snap election must be held within 30–60 days, and Mr. Loughman hopes that that is enough time for him to convince voters that even if parliament does not have confidence in his inability to lead, they should.
Opposition leader Ralph Regenvanu denounced parliament’s dissolution, given that dissolution takes away the ability of parliament to remove a prime minister if they lose a coalitional majority as it appears Mr. Loughman has. He has vowed to fight the dissolution in court.
Unless the Supreme Court agrees with whatever legal argument put forth by Mr. Regenvanu, Mr. Loughman will have the ability to defend his position with the people. Instead of resigning in the face of a looming motion of no confidence, he circumvented the traditional direction of Ni-Vanuatu politics in an attempt to stay in power.
Vanuatu is a strategically important country in the diplomatic and infrastructural battle for dominance in the Pacific between the United States and China. Just as the U.S. used Vanuatu to attack Imperial Japan in World War II, Vanuatu is a potential link between the U.S. and China if tensions were to flare.
Barring an actual war, Vanuatu plays a significant role in the economic battle for influence in the region. With an agriculturally-focused economy, transportation infrastructure is critical to export their goods efficiently, most of which involve maritime travel or sea products. In 2006, Vanuatu received US$65.69 million from the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which allowed it to construct two crucial roads straddling its two major islands.
The U.S. specifically provides US$21 million yearly to boost Vanuatu’s economy, focused on the fishing industry. The U.S. works with Vanuatu in several international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund and the Pacific Community, and is a Dialogue Partner of the Pacific Islands Forum. The U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Pacific by economically and diplomatically cooperating with various nations, including Vanuatu, which would help to counteract China’s growth in the region.
China and Vanuatu signed an economic and technological cooperation agreement in 2011, seeking to increase their partnership. Ni-Vanuatu prime ministers have clamped down on dissenting opinions on China-Vanuatu relations, with the clearest example being the decision made by then Prime Minister Charlot Salwai to bar a Daily Post journalist who criticized the two countries’ relationship from obtaining a work permit and reentering Vanuatu.
China and Vanuatu have not just aligned in words: Vanuatu is economically indebted to China and the development it spurred. Vanuatu owes nearly 50 percent of its US$440 million foreign debt to China, and there have been rumors that China plans to build a military base on Vanuatu, though this might be propaganda to move public opinion even further against China.
Despite the momentary strengthening of ties with Taiwan in 2004 by former Prime Minister Serge Vohor, Vanuatu has moved toward China and has brought other Pacific countries along with it. China is slowly increasing its Pacific ties, one island and one country at a time.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasing aggression against Taiwan and America’s shortening temper for Chinese antagonism in the region, the Pacific region’s influence in global politics will only keep expanding. Despite its small size, Vanuatu and other countries like it can tip the scales in the U.S.-China political impasse. Vanuatu’s inability to nourish a stable government is detrimental to the broader security of the region. Regardless of the outcome of this moment in Ni-Vanuatu history, whoever succeeds must be ready to meet the political moment and transcend the petty parliamentary arguments that only harm Vanuatu’s people.