Election follies

This week’s column for the Daily Post is about Vanuatu’s imminent general election, to be held on September 2nd. In the course of researching this country’s political and electoral history, I found far more than I could reasonably fit into a spartan 850 words. So here’s a rambling brain dump about some of the more interesting peculiarities Vanuatu’s electoral landscape….

My primary source for historical data is ANU researcher Mike Morgan’s fascinating explanation of the factors in Vanuatu’s increasingly fractionating political environment. The events described therein seem almost farcical until one considers that they came within a whisker of destroying the nascent state. It’s great Sunday reading for anyone who wants a free clue about Melanesian politics.

The Numbers Game

Vanuatu has a unique voter system. It consists of 17 constituencies, most of which are represented by multiple MPs. Every adult registered to vote casts one vote, and in a constituency with 5 seats, for example, the first 5 candidates to pass the post get a seat. Morgan:

The Anglo-French Condominium introduced [this] electoral system in preparation for the 1975 elections for the National Representative Assembly (NRA), the precursor to Vanuatu’s National Parliament. It allowed the colonial powers to avoid the involved and politically contentious process of setting up electoral wards and it kept the electoral system as straightforward as possible, which was considered crucial to allow for democracy to operate in a society with apparently limited literacy levels. Arguably, the system was also devised with the intention of dispersing the absolute electoral dominance of the VP [Vanua’ku Pati] in the lead-up to independence, ensuring some level of representation for the VP’s diverse, but minority opposition and hopefully lessening the impetus for rebellion, which was prevalent in the 1970s. It failed on both counts. The VP won the 1979 elections resoundingly, claiming an absolute majority in the National Parliament. Sparked by their losses in the election, sections of the Modérés attempted secession.

Let’s elaborate this a little. In 2004, there were a little over 19,000 registered voters in the Port Vila constituency. VP President Edward Nipake Natapei placed first with a little less than 1000 votes. The sixth place candidate was National United Party heavyweight Willy Jimmy, who scraped in with 738 votes.

I sat down today with a Maths major and we performed a series of gedankenexperiments based on 46 candidates competing for 6 seats here in Port Vila. It turns out that a 40 line pseudo-random Perl script returns a vote distribution similar to what we saw in 2004’s election. We used round numbers to represent the number of actual voters, then had each of them randomly select a candidate. The maximum and standard deviations were almost the same as 2004. The difference between 1st and, say, 10th places is difficult to distinguish from statistical noise.

King of the Hill

The electorate is utterly fragmented. There are so many candidates, each of them with their own tiny fraction of the electorate (usually all from the same village or island) delegated to them by chiefs or other community leaders, that it’s reasonable to expect success if you can attract 4-6% of the final tally. Democracy as it’s practiced in Vanuatu is the least representative of any true democracy I’ve seen.

As I considered this dynamic, I imagined a scenario in which a given candidate recognises that they probably won’t receive more than X votes. They’re faced with two alternatives: They can try to increase their own voter share, or they can make sure nobody else passes them. The former is difficult, to say the least. There is much distrust between communities, and the currency of policy and public works is so debased that people don’t see the point of it. Far better to get the direct benefits that accrue from selling one’s vote to someone close by. They, at least, can be relied on for a bag of rice and some free kava beforehand, and they’ll have to accept your invitation to the next fund-raising.

So it makes vastly more sense to undercut the next guy. You identify a community (or even a few families) that traditionally supported your opponent, and convince one of them to contest. It’s cheap enough: about 100 thousand vatu (USD 1,000) for the candidate registration fee, a million or so to buy posters and goodies with, and Bob’s your uncle.

I’ve asked around a bit to see if this utter fractionation is partly the result of people gaming the system. The consensus is that it’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely. But regardless of whether this tactic is being used, there are still dozens of others who are running of their own accord, for any number of personal reasons. Many – if not most – candidates enter the fray with banner aloft, rallying all others to their side. It’s ironic that many of them have chosen to do so precisely because they don’t trust anyone else to do it.

It gets worse after the elections. Everyone is so intent on joining government and grabbing a cabinet position that they’ll join just about every coalition mooted, then turn around and auction themselves back to the government before the ink is even dry. For what it’s worth, there are few significant policy differences between parties, and it’s common to see former Opposition MPs picking up the traces from exactly the point where their predecessor left off. This has led some participants in the governance process to put less emphasis on government stability and more on what they call policy stability. Faces may change, but the big issues remain fairly consistent.

Quantum Distances

As Vanuatu attempts to come to terms with the anomie of its 20s, observers love to speculate whether it will ultimately follow the same path as its Melanesian neighbours – that is, a fairly swift and inexorable decline into dysfunction. It’s fashionable to gloss over the differences and lump together Fiji’s flirtation with dictatorship, the ethnic tensions that characterise Solomon Islands politics, and the nepotistic kleptocracy of PNG. All of these have arisen for distinctly different reasons.

And Vanuatu circumstances are unique, too. I spoke with someone who was among the small group trying to keep the proverbial train on the tracks during the late 90s. He laughed when I said I’d never realised just how criminally farcical it all seemed. He admitted that things had been pretty touch and go for a while. If it hadn’t been for the quiet intercession of a sober few at crucial moments, Vanuatu might well have failed as a state.

But it never did.

It’s a peculiar thing, but rife as this nation may be with petty jealousies and opportunism, social mechanisms exist to keep the worst from happening. At the risk of reducing a very complex dynamic to a level of inane simplicity, I’d suggest there are two major social factors operating here:

  • Everyone here has a sense, not of justice, but of limitations to behaviour. A man can, for example, beat his wife mercilessly inside his bamboo thatch house, because that’s ‘private’ space. But there will be trouble if he does the same in the front yard. It’s not like people aren’t vividly aware of what’s happening, but they can safely ignore it if it doesn’t obtrude on the public space. Nobody really wants to interfere, or cares particularly about the victim, but there’s an implicit sense that these two are causing problems for everyone if their problem intrudes onto the public stage. The man get penalised, not because he’s done wrong, but because he’s creating a disturbance.
  • There are no kings here. Chiefs – and by extension most leaders –  exercise their authority by standing in the middle of a group rather than at the head of a column. Community leaders here resemble bellwethers more than anything. They lead, in effect, by knowing their constituents,  by rallying them to the cause they’re most likely to support. But people are jealous and opportunistic. Nobody here likes seeing someone else benefit, especially when it’s at their expense. If someone looks to be rising too high, he’ll be dragged back down. Heck, even if advancement doesn’t come at their expense, people are still wont to drag others down just as a matter of form. In that light, the unifying force of nationalism that gave Vanuatu a truly national government for the first decade of its existence was a notable – and timely – aberration.

There are a number of other factors that come into play, including the effect of kava on violence in general and the counteractive force of family bonds against urban drift and materialism. But the big factors in keeping things from spinning completely out of control are the two above.

And the five others that I’ve left for another day….