All the Young Turks

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

How the mighty have fallen. As Vanuatu counts the votes from Tuesday’s election, it’s becoming increasingly evident that some of the figures who have dominated the political scene in Vanuatu since Independence are falling by the wayside.

In my last column, I argued that policy and principle had suffered such neglect in recent years that Vanuatu voters had turned inward, trading their votes for the most direct and straightforward rewards. Saucepans and bags of rice had become the currency of the electorate, because promises never came to anything. A week later, we appear to be witnessing the demise of some of the strongest proponents of this practice.

According to some, that’s not entirely good news.

As the deadline approaches, preliminary results indicate that a number of younger candidates have made a forceful entry onto the political stage. Independent Ralph Regenvanu’s reform message appears to have given him one of the largest pluralities of any candidate in Vanuatu’s political history.

Bakoa Kaltongga, until recently Edward Natapei’s right-hand man, has used his extensive network in rural Efate to push past the post in a constituency previously dominated by strongman Barak Sope. The picture is muddy and conflicting reports are rife, but it appears lean numbers for Sope have left him on the razor’s edge.

In the south, VP candidates Ture Kailo and Harry Iauko look like they’ll provide the cap for a strong VP showing throughout TAFEA province. Iauko’s first-place finish in the decidedly fractious Tanna constituency has led some to moot the idea that a palace coup within the party might hamstring VP at the very moment of its victory.

Among those most at risk of elimination are people once deemed unassailable: Barak Sope, VRP headman Maxime Carlot Korman[*], NUP perennial Willy Jimmy, recently dethroned VP heavyweight Sela Molisa. It’s not yet clear who will survive, but the gauntlet has clearly been thrown. Many of these characters were in the thick of things in the turbulent 1990s, when instability and near-chaos reigned.

It’s clear that we’re seeing the first signs of generational change in the political landscape, but numerous sources question whether this implies substantive change in policy or political practice. Regenvanu was categorical in his disappointment with the political landscape as it currently appears. “I thought more people would vote for change,“ he said.

Regenvanu is not alone in noting that many of the newcomers may not have sat in Parliament before, but they’re no strangers to the political scene. One observer noted wryly that this is very much a case of the apprentices defeating their masters.

For the most part, campaigns were conducted as they always have been, with lavish volumes of food, kava and other consumables at every rally. Regenvanu maintains that he is the only top-tier candidate in Port Vila who didn’t provide an operating base camp replete with all the emoluments that many voters have come to expect.

He claims it’s no coincidence that his approach appealed to voters from communities throughout Port Vila. “I was elected by the most diverse, most well-informed, well-educated constituency in Vanuatu,” he said, underlining the beneficial effects of transparency and information exchange on society.

He went on to contrast that with the community-centric bloc-voting approach of his competitors.

At this early stage, all signs point to VP and NUP forming the core of a coalition quite similar in composition to the last government. There’s even been scuttlebutt about the possible reunification of the two parties, now that most of the belligerents who brought about the split are out of the picture.
This might make political life more predictable, but it doesn’t imply fundamental change. Those who sigh with relief at the prospect of a reversal in the trend toward factionalism express reservations about slow progress in the same breath.

The question, then, is what role will be played by this new generation of political players? Some have demonstrated their adeptness at manoeuvring within existing party structures. Will they feel the desire or the need to use the traditional political toolkit differently, or to supplement it with new approaches?

Ralph Regenvanu’s campaign offers one compelling lesson: It is indeed possible to run against the traditional grain, to win votes across the board by running a populist, principled campaign. Whether others choose to follow his example remains to be seen.

It’s too soon to speculate about the roles and responsibilities these new personalities will take on in the new Parliament. Observers see far too many variables in play to feel confident in their prognostications. Will the powers that be try to co-opt these new entrants into the field? Will Iauko attempt to complete his ascendancy by vying for the VP crown?

And what to make of a fiery independent who has already drawn the ire of some of the aging establishment lions? Would it be better, as US President Lyndon Johnson famously said, to have him inside the tent, pissing out, or outside the tent, pissing in? When asked if he saw himself playing an Opposition role, Regenvanu laughed and said, “I sure hope not!”

[*] Turns out rumours of Korman’s demise were somewhat exaggerated. His low returns in the early going might have had to do with his strong support from expatriate ni-Vanuatu voters, especially in Nouméa.