Spit and a Handshake

Horse traders in Ireland famously spit into their palms before shaking hands to seal a deal. A great deal of spitting goes on in Vanuatu-style horse trading, but it’s almost all kava-induced.

Almost all.

The political scene here is small enough that everyone knows each other. In some cases, this acquaintance borders on respect, even camaraderie. But in a few cases, familiarity has bred a special kind of contempt. As potential coalition line-ups are considered, the question, often enough, is which players are capable of sitting together in the same room long enough to agree about anything.

Though it was most pronounced in the 1990s, fickleness has been the hallmark of Vanuatu politics for almost two decades now. Outgoing PM Ham Lini survived a record 5 motions of no confidence against him during his time in office.

What’s remarkable about that record is not the number of motions, but the fact that he survived them all.

Stability has come at a price these last few years. Tolerance has been shown for ministerial shenanigans that would make even a Republican Congressman blush. The bar was set too low, many people say; all that’s required to remain in the Club is a guaranteed vote of support for the PM. You can wreck your car, beat your wife, make public debauchery your calling card – it’s all good as long as you’re there on the day of the vote.

Still, the stability that Ham Lini’s government has managed to muster these last 4 years is a notable departure from the game of musical chairs that characterised the late 1990s. And in fairness, just being sure that you’d be seeing the same faces from one day to the next has made some very important work possible. Not the least of these is the USD 68 million infrastructure investment from the Millennium Challenge Account. The (so far) successful liberalisation of the telecoms market is another feather in the governance cap that Ham Lini and Edward Natapei can rightly lay claim to.

But everything is up in the air again. The local book on a prospective VP/NUP coalition has it as next best to a sure thing. That gets them most of a simple majority, though the exact number is still unclear.

The only other major bloc would involve the UMP and VRP, but leaders Serge Vohor and Maxime Carlot Korman spent most of the 1990s trying to stick the knife in. It’s commonly said that they hate each other with a passion.

Plus, the talk around town is that Serge’s brief, abortive reversal of Vanuatu’s One China policy has made him toxic to the other major parties, most of whom have formally befriended the Chinese Communist Party. So, most people reason, there’s simply no safe way to include Vohor or his UMP in any governing coalition. In effect, sign a deal with him and you’re in the Opposition.

Thing is, Korman’s mercurial reputation is starting to give people pause as well. Even while he occupied the position of Minister of Lands, he was spotted around town professing the need for a change. The Daily Post reports that he’s making noises about requiring the PM’s position before his party joins any coalition. Most observers are openly skeptical about his chances, but everyone admits that stranger things have happened in the name of expediency.

So where does that leave us? Well Greens leader Moana Carcasses and PPP head Sato Kilman have apparently been trying to make common cause for a while. If the unofficial election results are any reflection of reality, they’ve got MPs enough to comprise the missing third piece of a stable coalition. Assuming, that is, that VP and NUP claims concerning affiliated independents pan out.

But there’s room for a great deal of squabbling over spoils. Even if Green/PPP operate as a block, there’s no doubt that both Sato, who’s already served as Deputy PM and Foreign Minister, and Moana, who most recently had a stint in Finance before being bumped into Opposition, would each expect to be rewarded handsomely in exchange for their support.

This could leave VP with few spots to give to their own. Local wags are quick to note that there’s no love lost between young buck Harry Iauko and some of the senior members of the VP establishment. If his remarkable vote numbers survive scrutiny, he’ll have demonstrated that he’s a force to be reckoned with. Party leader Natapei might even have to consider the prospect of passing his own party over for the top role in order to avoid a dogfight.

It’s early days yet. Many a bucket of kava will be emptied and many pigs will die before we spectators get a clear indication of what our next government will look like.