It’s all going down now in Vanuatu. Despite a relatively sedate first two years in power, Bob Loughman’s Vanua'aku Pati-led coalition seems ready to combust.
Bitterness over the recent Presidential election has led a small contingent of party stalwarts to defect. By signing the recent motion of no confidence, they’ve sealed their fate within the party, whose rules dictate that any member signing such a motion must be ejected.
A larger group of front- and back-bench malcontents are being courted with promises to deliver on compensation measures that the Loughman coalition recently failed to bring to a vote. These include massive pay-rises structured similarly to Solomon Islands’ controversial constituency development funds.
The measures were packaged up with a number of even more alarming proposals, including one designed to extend the life of Parliament (again, echoes of Solomon Islands here), and another that would have made the Chief Justice subject to periodic performance reviews.
Now the Opposition and a number of coalition members are making hay from what they’re characterising as a string of broken promises. The latest sitting of Parliament was deferred for lack of quorum, making it clear to the PM and his VP stalwarts that—as of now at least—they don’t have the numbers they need to survive.
In a last-ditch effort to drive MPs back into the fold, Loughman has won approval from his council of ministers to seek a dissolution from newly-elected President Nikenike Vurobaravu.
A lifetime VP member who clearly owes his elevation to the party, Mr Vurobaravu is nonetheless unlikely to accede to the CoM’s request. The decision is entirely at his discretion, and the Constitution places few limits on the President’s power to dissolve Parliament. But to do so in the face of a motion of no confidence, and barely halfway through the electoral term, seems more than this president could condone. Vurobaravu is widely known as a conscientious and fair man with deep respect for the law.
That said, Bob Loughman’s arguments for dissolution are not entirely without merit. His contention that a vote of no confidence at this moment will only lead to costly and chaotic political and financial costs is valid. The Opposition’s plan right now is to oust the current bunch and replace them with… well, that part’s unclear. Between themselves, they’re touting at least one obvious non-contender for Prime Minister, effectively telegraphing that the decision will be made only after dust settles.
This is uncharacteristic in Vanuatu politics. While a bit of last-minute horse trading is inevitable in any political realignment, the major players have always walked into no confidence motions with the main portfolios (PM, DPM, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs and Lands) locked in. This time, they have yet to progress past square one.
How have things moved so quickly with so little certainty about the outcome? Rumours are rife that there is a whole new class of ‘investors’ making promises and offering gifts that are larger than we’ve ever seen before.
Put your pearls down: China does not appear to be in the middle of this. They—and their Australian counterparts—appear to be watching closely, but not backing any individual horse at the moment. No matter who the next PM, they’ll want him as a friend, so for them, patience is the right play.
So where is the new money coming from? Aside from rumours of a mysterious African Prince—a fancifully fictitious character—nobody’s willing to say. We do know however that there’s concern that VP has soiled the bed, so to speak, on passport revenues. Numerous existing and potential passport holders—and their agents—are alarmed at the EU’s recent decision to ‘temporarily’ stop visa-free access for passports issued since the citizenship by investment programmes began.
There are also a few crypto-libertarians kicking around, and a number of economic refugees fleeing international sanctions, looking for a place to set up shop. Even a relatively small amount of money can go a long way in the tiny fishbowl of Vanuatu politics.
How will it play out? Frankly nobody knows right now—not even the core players. Nobody ever made money betting on Pacific politics.
We can be confident about a few things though:
This does not bode well for Vanuatu. Greater instability is upon us, and it’s hard to see things coalescing into an orderly and predictable shape any time soon. MPs’ demands are becoming more strident, and the kind of promises that are being made right now are vastly inflating the cost of forming a government. Some of the numbers I’ve heard bandied about suggest that expectations from individual MPs have more than doubled since the last serious shake-up.
Bob Loughman’s arguably right in warning that a general election now will ultimately cost the nation less than the current course of action. And if a small but significant number of MPs see the threat of dissolution as real, they may scurry back to the fold. Better to face one angry PM than a village full of angry voters.
Right now, though, the momentum is on the Opposition side, and it appears MPs will contentedly break the current coalition without worrying too much about what the next one will look like.
The king-making process is always messy here. And it’s sure to be complicated by economic, geopolitical and legal machinations.
Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy week.