A Window of Opportunity

This editorial piece was published in today’s Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper.

Members of the Vanuatu Mobile Force deliver ballot boxes from Vanuatu’s outer islands to the electoral office. Credit: Matt Temar

On Friday last week, RVS Tukoro arrived in Port Vila harbor and delivered its cargo of ballot boxes from the outer islands at Port Vila’s electoral office. Numerous (and sometimes contradictory) anecdotal voting results have already reached the public, but it’s clear that the official numbers could be released before the week is out. Assuming, that is, that there aren’t any signs of systematic malfeasance.

Be that as it may, one thing seems perfectly clear: None of the old guard political parties has a distinct advantage over the others. Neither have the insurgent parties managed to establish more than a foothold.

Speculation is rife about what this means for Vanuatu’s political future. Some have worried publicly about another hodge-podge government, ruled by maverick MPs jumping from side to side of the government fence, chasing the sweetest deals.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s a lot to ask, but let’s ignore for the moment the personalities involved and just look at the numbers. Assuming the unofficial results are at least ballpark-accurate, the combination of numbers from the first post-independence parties gets very close to the notional 26 needed to form a working government. If the VP, NUP and UMP parties were able, even for a while, to suspend their mistrust of one another and limit their individual ambitions, they could put themselves in a position where they could cobble together a working government.

(Note that I’m excluding Sato Kilman’s PPP from this equation for the moment, first because spokesman John Shing has been publicly stating that Sato’s intention is to reform his old cabinet, and because it’s inconceivable that, having betrayed him so recently, Kilman could reconcile with Natapei without significant loss of status. I know I said we should try to forget the personalities involved, but this one’s just too big to ignore.)

Doling out roles and responsibilities wouldn’t be an easy task. Serge Vohor’s now-famous portrayal of the Council of Ministers as one big PM and a dozen small PMs likely remains accurate. But the alternative – a crazy quilt of individuals and smaller parties – is much, much worse.

There are a few good reasons why the major parties might actually be able to achieve an understanding. The biggest is that the ‘cowboys’ are mostly gone. Both VP and UMP have seen their most rebellious members leave their respective parties, leaving a smaller but potentially more cohesive group behind. Secondly, their diminished numbers are a clear statement that they need to look to the future if they’re going to survive.

Achieving a working compromise would involve some pretty high-stakes horse-trading, and it’s likely that some involved would find it hard to resist the urge to derive maximum profit from such negotiations. But if somehow Natapei, Vohor and Lini were able to forge an understanding, they could create the one thing Vanuatu needs more than anything else: A buyer’s market for positions on the government side.

During the political spasms that led to Edward Natapei’s ouster as Prime Minister and the eventual elevation of Sato Kilman, one frustrated minister was reported to have complained that the price of a single MP’s support in a confidence vote had reached unprecedented heights (5 million vatu, according to the report). But with a cohesive core of MPs, and the ability to play the smaller blocks and individual MPs against each other, a NUP/UMP/VP government would be better positioned to resist such extortionist tactics.

The question then, becomes one of whether the leaders can hold their own parties together, whether they can moderate their own desire for primacy and, uncharacteristically, whether they can play a longer game in order to buy time to engage properly in party-building.

It’s a tragic/comic circumstance that we find ourselves working so hard just to conceive of a government capable of lasting more than a few months. This necessary fixation with numbers completely ignores questions that are fundamental to good governance: How capable are the ministerial candidates? What policies (if any) do they propose? What common policy ground can be found among such a motley collection of perspectives and personalities?

But we can’t afford to let cynicism rule our thoughts. Not now. An increasing number of Ni Vanuatu have expressed the fear that we are rapidly approaching a divide. Either we descend, perhaps irreversibly, into a chaotic system in which each MP looks no further than his own stable of supporters and funders, or we begin the painful, patient process of party-building, of charting a course towards a more national vision.

USP professor Howard Van Trease has written extensively about Vanuatu’s political history. In one paper, he detailed the Vanua’aku Pati’s significant grassroots network in the early days of the Republic. Though they are but a remnant of what they once were, they do still possess a more or less national structure (albeit heavily weighted toward the South). They’ve also made it party policy that party President Natapei will step down after this term.

NUP still needs to develop a succession plan. One option available to them is to consider a reunion with VP. NUP president Ham Lini was reportedly a reluctant candidate this time around, and a return to his family’s political roots might be one way not only to smooth his transition to elder statesman status; it would go a long way to providing him with an enduring legacy as a force for unity and stability in Vanuatu.

Serge Vohor’s UMP have historically been on the other side of the political fence, but on examination, there’s not much in their party policies to distinguish them from the other two. And in fairness, they have proved themselves useful (if somewhat mercurial) coalition partners in the past.

Couple these factors with the rise of newer, more vision-based parties such as populist Ralph Regenvanu’s Graon mo Jastis pati – who have already publicly stated their willingness to work with VP – and we find ourselves with the broad-strokes picture of a government that could actually present a common vision for development for Vanuatu.

Realistically, there’s only a small chance that all this will come about, and perhaps even less that individual ‘small PMs’ will be able to restrain their short-term impulses, but simply put, it’s the best chance we’ve got.