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Precarious moment: Vanuatu court to rule on prime minister’s fate

Precarious moment: Vanuatu court to rule on prime minister’s fate

Next week Vanuatu’s court of appeal will sit to decide the political fate of the prime minister, Bob Loughman, and 18 other MPs. The supreme court ruled in June that they had vacated their seats after a three-day boycott of parliament by the government side.

Even in a country accustomed to political intrigue and surprise, it is a precarious moment. So how did we get here, who are the key players and what might happen next?

How did it come to this?

After general elections in March 2020, parliament elected Gracia Shadrack as Speaker in the coalition led by Loughman of the Vanua’aku Pati and Ishmael Kalsakau of the Union of Moderate Parties.

Vanuatu’s coalition-driven politics are fluid. Parties fracture and regroup, and MPs are willing and able to move from one side to another (and back again) with startling frequency.

Until earlier this year the government side seemed pleased with how the Speaker was running the 52-seat parliament. But relations soured when Shadrack refused to deliver on an intra-coalition agreement about leadership of a provincial council. The last straw came when Shadrack ruled that the education minister, Seule Simeon, had vacated his seat when he left former prime minister Charlot Salwai’s Reunification Movement for Change. MPs are forbidden by law from switching parties between electoral cycles.

And so it was that on 24 May the government sought to lodge a motion of no confidence in the Speaker. The Speaker ruled on 1 June that the motion was not sufficiently mature to be debated. His ruling was challenged by the government but the supreme court found in his favour.

Precarious moment: Vanuatu court to rule on prime minister’s fate

Without waiting for the court ruling, the government MPs boycotted parliament on three consecutive days in early June.

Boycotts are not new in Vanuatu’s parliamentary landscape, although this was a first insofar as it was the government walking out. But then things took an unexpected turn. On 8 June the Speaker, by way of a statement to the House, declared that 19 seats had been vacated.

Among them were the PM, the deputy PM, every minister and several other government office holders.

Shadrack reasoned that under the terms of the Vacation of Seats Act, those MPs had missed three consecutive sittings of the parliament without having given his office notice or obtaining his permission.

It is a well-worn path between Parliament House and the supreme court in Port Vila. The court ruled in favour of the Speaker and confirmed that yes, those seats had indeed been vacated. A stay order allowed them to remain in place (including as members of cabinet where applicable) pending an appeal. And an appeal was duly lodged – this is the case that will be heard on Monday.

What happens next?

No one gets rich betting on political machinations in Vanuatu, and this is not the place to try to second guess the court’s decision. We are in uncharted political territory and several possible scenarios present themselves:

First, it’s important to remember that Vanuatu has a well-deserved reputation for upholding the rule of law and following court decisions, even if it comes at significant personal and political cost.

In 2015 more than a dozen MPs were convicted of conspiracy and bribery, leading to terms of imprisonment and 10-year bans on serving in parliament. This took several high-profile political actors out of play (on the frontlines, at least), including two former prime ministers and several serving cabinet members.

The Vanuatu public rightly takes great civic pride in the willingness of the political class to submit to judicial authority. This provides an important – and sometimes overlooked – element of stability in a political environment that can look chaotic from the outside.

This is something we would hope to see continue even as we navigate this current political moment.

What happens if the MPs’ appeal fails on Monday?

It is likely that parliament will be convened to elect a new Speaker and prime minister. It is reasonable to expect that this would see the opposition bloc take power. The opposition tried to accelerate things on this score with a motion of no confidence. It was defeated when the government was able to muster 27 votes.

Precarious moment: Vanuatu court to rule on prime minister’s fate

Moving forward, the country will be faced with the previously unheard-of situation of holding 19 byelections. The constituencies that will be affected span the length and breadth of the country so the logistics (and expense) that would be involved is considerable. It is open to question what the public appetite for this would be, given how recently the country held general elections. Not to mention the ongoing effects of Covid-19 and all that goes with them.

But the key point is what this means for electioneering strategy, and this looks to be what has driven a lot of what we have witnessed. Some of the country’s best political campaigners – think opposition MPs Ralph Regenvanu, Jotham Napat, Matai Seremaia – will not be contesting. A strategic approach focused on target seats could well see key figures in the current government bloc unseated at the polls. It also provides a singular opportunity to bring together a governing coalition with more than just a bare majority.

What if the appeal succeeds?

The government and its leadership will no doubt feel vindicated, possibly emboldened. MPs who have crossed the floor from the government benches may well decide to move back.

In a last-minute twist, the MPs who are seeking to hang on to their seats have engaged the Australian barrister Ari Jenshel to appear for them on Monday. He is no stranger to Vanuatu, having served as an adviser in the State Law Office (then overseen by Kalsakau as attorney general). This is considered a smart move on the part of the appellants and will add a frisson to proceedings.

While political antics make for good conversation on social media or over kava, there is no doubt that the wider community is increasingly frustrated at the amount of time and energy being devoted to politicking rather than dealing with important issues.


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