Voting for the Man

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

The 1990s were a time that many in Vanuatu might prefer to forget. Internecine political disputes resulted in a government more changeable than the weather. Senior ministers fought a running legal and ideological battle with Ombudsman Marie-Noelle Patterson. They were so distracted that they utterly ignored the business of governing. Failure to table a budget in 1996 led the VMF to abduct President Lenelcau in order to force payment of nearly 100 million vatu in outstanding allowances. The gutting of the National Provident Fund by politicians and senior government officials brought angry rioters into the streets and resulted in widespread damage.

This culminated in a tragicomedy of errors involving huckster Amarendra Nath Ghosh, a bogus ‘world’s largest ruby’, and the issuance of illegal bonds that would have beggared the nation. The gemstone is the only thing of enduring value. It serves as a paperweight in the Ministry of Finance.

To the casual outsider, it beggars imagination that most of the people responsible for this ungodly mess still enjoy broad voter support. To many ni-Vanuatu, though, the question doesn’t even bear asking.

Kastom doesn’t give much weight to abstractions such as Right or Wrong. Natural Justice, especially in the form of plaintiff and defendant, doesn’t come naturally here. The simple fact is that small island communities can’t afford to have winners and losers. They need everyone to stick together, all the time. To that end, a loosely circumscribed space exists for bullying, cheating and other pathologies: As long as what you do benefits your community, do as you will. If you over-reach or turn on your own, however, you won’t be protected.

Fewer and fewer outside supporters cleave to those perennial candidates whose fingerprints remain on the serial debacle that marked Vanuatu’s teenage years. In 2004, nearly half of all incumbents lost their seat. This shift in voter allegiance represents a return to old habits. Wholesale desertion of the erstwhile champions of nationalism led to record low voter turnouts accompanied by an increasing tendency to look toward inward, not outward, to protect local interests.

Every election since 1979 has seen new parties, new faces and increasingly narrow interests brought to the electoral table. Man Vanuatu has been replaced by Man Ifira, Man Erakor, Man Santo.

The worst effects of an increasingly fragmented and insular electorate are only enhanced by Vanuatu’s unique multi-seat constituencies, in each of which several candidates are elected based on raw vote numbers. In Port Vila, with over 20,000 registered voters, experts predict that the top one or two candidates are likely to win their seats with barely a thousand votes each by combining their base language group vote with broad appeal. The bottom three or four candidates need only poll in the hundreds to creep across the line. Remember that one candidate won just 352 votes out of about nine thousand to win a seat in 1998.

This is cause for real concern. One researcher writes:

“Given the geographic, ethnic and cultural diversity of Vanuatu, an increasing emphasis on local networks and local knowledge will in all likelihood create an equally diverse Parliament with no unifying ideologies.”

Voices calling for unity of purpose are many, but few actively campaign beyond their own community. Fewer still have treated policy and principles as anything more than window dressing. Those who do face a distinct challenge. They must swim against the decidedly contrary current of family- and village-based bloc voting by identifying themselves with more abstract principles.

Efforts to organise the smaller evangelical churches into a coherent party foundered within months. The so-called Independent bloc is bound together mostly by expediency. Many of them portray themselves as opposition figures, but experience shows that the greatest cause of instability in government is individual MPs clawing past one another to secure cabinet positions and (more to the point) their perquisites.

In spite of all this, we do see one or two veterans campaigning on their performance on the national stage. With characteristic humility, PM Lini has stated that he will stand or fall based on his past performance. Likewise, Edward Natapei has left Futuna behind, relying primarily on the demise of the telecoms monopoly to garner broad support from Port Vila voters.

Facing somewhat longer odds are issues candidates like Ralph Regenvanu. He has arguably the most clearly elaborated platform in the country. Precisely because of his articulacy and his Obama-like popularity among ‘change voters’, many establishment lions have been seen pouting and puffing disapprovingly about him.

Regenvanu is seeking to ride a current of impatience for change that runs through all communities. His strategy appears to be to snatch a few votes from everybody, rather than wrap up any single constituency. Ironically, he’ll require fewer than 1000 votes of the 21,000 or so on offer to succeed, if past elections are any indication.

The prospect of a coherent, effective, policy-driven government is fast receding. Community affiliation appears still to trump ‘western’ ideals. This system of localised political debt will make it far too easy for short-term opportunism to triumph over principle and long-term gain.

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