Filling the Cracks With Gold

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

September 2nd promises to be a bloody day, in political terms. In Vanuatu’s 9th general election, at least 334 candidates will battle for one of 52 seats in 17 different constituencies. These candidates represent over 30 political parties, many new, some old. They are opposed by the largest contingent of independent candidates ever fielded. Over 80 will run.

Port Vila voters will witness nothing short of a battle royal. Some of the most venerable names in Vanuatu politics, including ex-PMs Natapei and Korman, minister Willy Jimmy and Opposition Leader Moana Carcasses, are facing numerous serious challengers. Among the most notable contenders: Constitutional Lion Silas Hakwa, Leba president Ephraim Kalsakau, firebrand Independent Ralph Regenvanu, backroom veteran Manina Packete and the ever-popular Moses Steven. In all, 46 candidates will duke it out for 6 seats.

While some seats are safer than others, no candidate can rest easy. Nationwide, roughly 8 candidates are fighting for each available spot. Even worse than the battle to be first past the post will be the positively Byzantine post-election horse-trading that ensues. Right now, it’s hard to see how an actual working government will emerge from the carnage.

Not everybody is pessimistic about the prospects. Prominent Independent Ralph Regenvanu states plainly that he’s glad of the fragmentation. He maintains that because of their ingrained networks of personal obligation and vested interest, the incumbent parties couldn’t change if they wanted to. His campaign slogan, ‘Inaf!’ succinctly encapsulates grassroots impatience with a generation of one-time freedom fighters who, some say, have forgotten what they once stood for.

No less than 8 of the 30-plus parties contesting this election were formed in the last 18 months. But this year’s explosive fragmentation in political affiliation should surprise no one. The trend toward factionalism has been evident since 1991, when Walter Lini split from his own VP to form NUP. Since then every major falling-out has been accompanied by the hoisting of a new political banner. Many feel that tactics like the 2004 NUP/VP alliance, wherein both campaigned on a common platform, will not suffice to keep the ‘traditional’ parties in power.

In all likelihood, the next Parliament will more closely resemble the traditional village nasara than a party-dominated assembly. Individual views will need to be polled constantly, and consensus will become that most precious – and possibly rarest – commodity.

In this particular nasara, though, determining who the chief is will likely prove difficult. One hopes that we do not descend into a fractious, back-biting mess reminiscent of the 1990s, which saw 8 different Prime Ministers in a 10-year period.

There might be cause for hope. An upcoming report on political parties by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy and the Australian Labor Party’s International Projects Unit shows that many of the newer parties promise to operate in a manner that more closely emulates kastom practice.

The booklet, which profiles 21 parties, provides a succinct and fascinating snapshot of elections past and present. This timely and invaluable addition to the public dialogue is available in English and Bislama. It will be launched on Monday noon at the Seafront Stage in downtown Port Vila.

Perhaps most interesting is the report’s contention that political parties are the best vehicle to drive a truly national policy debate, something that has been missing since Independence. This stands in stark contrast to the common perception among voters that an MP’s primary role is to deliver wealth and development to their own supporters, starting before the votes are even cast.

Reading the policy stances of the various parties, one is left a little bemused. Emphasis aside, there is really very little divergence from one to another. But the contrast between platform and performance is sometimes immense. It would be comic if it didn’t matter so much.

In contrast, some Independents’ platforms provide a distinct departure from many parties’ staid political bromides. Assuming they garner sufficient popular support, they might well broker a renewal of purpose that the parties couldn’t manage on their own.

The PiPP report rightly observes that this election will be more about personalities and promises than policy. The most likely result will be a Parliament stacked to the rafters with competing political debts.

An apocryphal story from China recounts how the Emperor once broke a priceless vase. He commissioned the most talented artisan in the Empire to make it exactly as it was before. The frightened artisan surveyed the broken fragments with dismay, certain that there was no saving the vessel. At last he struck upon a plan. When he presented the finished work to the Emperor, he warned that not even he could hide the cracks, so he had filled them with gold. Indeed, the vase was more beautiful than before.

Vanuatu’s political apparatus resembles that vase. But with the proper application of skill, diplomacy and sane compromise – an amalgam of all that is best in kastom – it might be possible to create a true masterpiece: A government that truly represents its people, is still capable of guiding the nation and embodies the best of Vanuatu’s traditions.