Coronavirus fears and controversial passport sales: Vanuatu's election explained

A country with fractured and shifting political alliances, Vanuatu heads to the polls at a crucial moment in its history

In the coffee shops and kava bars of Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila, there are two subjects that dominate conversation: Covid-19 and this week’s general elections, which will be held on Thursday.

What is happening?

Vanuatu, a south Pacific nation just a three-hour flight from Australia, has a population of just under 300,000. It is often thought of as a politically unstable nation, with shifting political allegiances, seemingly based more on expediency than ideology.

In 2015, 14 members of parliament, including the acting prime minister, were found guilty of corruption, putting half the governing party’s MPs behind bars. The last elections were held in January 2016 and there has been one prime minister, Charlot Salwai, since then.

The 2020 elections come at a key time for Vanuatu, which this year marks its 40th anniversary of independence from joint rule by France and the United Kingdom. It is also scheduled to host the next meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders – the most significant regional diplomatic event – in August, and is scheduled to graduate from “least-developed” status by the end of the year.

Vanuatu map

Who is running?

From a field of almost 240 candidates, the people of Vanuatu will elect 52 MPs to sit in parliament. The prime minister will be elected by the entire house when it sits later this year.

Vanuatu politics is fractured and complex. After the 2016 elections there were 17 parties represented in the parliament, but none of them secured more than six seats and coalition governments have been a feature of the Vanuatu political scene for quite some time and that is unlikely to change this year.

The prime minister of Vanuatu Charlot Salwai (left) with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in Vanuatu in 2019.
The prime minister of Vanuatu Charlot Salwai (left) with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in Vanuatu in 2019. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/EPA

While long-established parties such as the Vanua’aku Pati (VP) and the United Moderates Party (UMP) will no doubt have a presence in the new parliament, newer groupings such as Salwai’s Reunification Movement for Change (RMC) and the Leaders Party of Vanuatu, led by the outgoing deputy prime minister Jotham Napat, are expected to feature strongly.

The profile of political candidates in Vanuatu has evolved over the years. Back in 1980, when Father Walter Lini became the first prime minister, the political leadership was largely made up of pastors and senior members of churches.

Now, Vanuatu’s parliament is increasingly a gathering of technocrats. At this election, a large number of former public servants have thrown their hats into the ring, as well as a number of candidates from the private sector.

There has not been a woman elected to parliament since 2008 and Vanuatu is one of just three countries in the world not to have any women in its parliament (the other two – Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia – are also in the Pacific). This year around 15 women are contesting, including prominent human rights campaigner and former nurse, Anne Pakoa.

Key issues

In Vanuatu, political parties tend to come together around personalities or family and kinship allegiances rather than political ideology. There is no left/right or conservative/progressive divide as such and different parties’ policy platforms often look very similar.

Fifty-two MPs will be elected to Vanuatu’s parliament.
Fifty-two MPs will be elected to Vanuatu’s parliament. Photograph: Dan McGarry/The Guardian

A contentious issue at this year’s election is the future of Vanuatu’s lucrative but controversial citizenship by investment, or “passport sales” programmes. These schemes have allowed applicants to become citizens in months, without setting foot in the country, for a price of around $US150,000.

The Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper found that 1,800 passports were sold in 2018 alone, making passport sales the single largest source of revenue for the Vanuatu government.

But away from the city, people are likely to vote for those they think will be able to meet their immediate needs, says Linda Kenni, a development consultant in Vanuatu who works in rural parts of the country.

“Some people vote because of the party… some vote for material things. They want to vote for people who will think of them when they win with material things like food items, solar lights and saucepans,” she says.

Coronavirus fears

At the last election, voter turnout was 57%, and there are concerns that people’s fears of Covid-19, of which there have bene no confirmed cases in Vanuatu so far, will present an additional hurdle to overcome.

The director-general of the ministry of internal affairs has urged people to vote and said there will be hand sanitiser at polling stations in an effort to provide some reassurance to people who might otherwise stay away.

Once the elections are done, it will likely be a few weeks before there is certainty about what the leadership of Vanuatu will look like.

Whoever takes the reins will have a number of challenges to address including dealing with the immediate and longer-term impacts of the new coronavirus, about which there is huge fear across the entire Pacific region, determining whether big events such as independence celebrations and the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting can proceed and the future of the nation.

Tess Newton Cain

The GuardianTramp

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