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.

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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.

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First election results

The very first election results are starting to trickle in. They’re very preliminary, incomplete and subject to change.

This is gossip, not reporting.

Final Update: Okay, it’s time to call it a day on this thread. I’ve been cross-referencing sources all over town, and the only thing that’s clear is that nothing is clear. The electoral office is not releasing numbers, and until they do there’s just too much inaccuracy – some of it certainly agenda-driven – to rely on at all. I won’t suggest you completely disregard what lies below; just take it all with a bucketful of salt.

(Update: Note that this page seems to contradict the previous. Ralph’s site was down just a little while ago, so they might have reverted to an earlier version to get the site back online. One source told me that they kept updating until late into the night, but ultimately left off. I take this to mean that his site is not at all accurate at the moment. Only goes to show that everything we say about the results at this stage is nearly pure speculation.)

(‘Nother update: I’ve talked to a few more people, and though minor details vary, the numbers in the first link appear to be indicative of the situation, if not perfect in detail. Candidate names, as compared with three other sources, seem to be more or less correct, and increasingly complete. Just got feedback from someone who’s a bit of an authority on this stuff, and apparently there are some significant discrepancies in the list above. Unfortunately, there is no canonical site for this, and little authoritative information online anywhere. That doesn’t change much of the prognostication below, however.)

(September 4, 08:00: Updated yet again to reflect new information and comments below.)

As the passing of a single day has shown, it’s remarkably easy to be wrong about even larger details. This article is starting to look like wikipedia in the middle of an edit war, but I’ll not be removing details, no matter how embarrassing to me. I feel that this is the best testament to the fluidity of the situation, and perhaps the most persuasive argument possible for greater transparency and information sharing.

My back-of-the-napkin analysis is getting rather long-winded, but I’m not (yet) willing to split it out into separate posts, so I’ll push it below a cut. Many more details follow….

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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.

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A Time and a Place

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

On Monday, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy officially launched ‘The political parties and groupings of Vanuatu’. The 60-page booklet is a treasure trove of information about Vanuatu’s political past and present. It lists the major political parties along with a brief history, key membership and policies. Already, there are over 500 Bislama copies in circulation. This number is expected to double before the election.

Chiefs, government representatives and members of civil society all voiced their support for the report. Without simple, reliable information like this, voters rely on intuition and (often hollow) promises to choose a candidate. Prior to this, the task of sifting the wheat from the rhetorical chaff was near impossible.

Rebecca Olul, manager of Save the Children’s Youth Outreach project, shared some lively and nuanced insights with the audience at Monday’s presentation. Her short speech cast a jaundiced eye on the vague blandishments that sometimes pass for policy. Without resorting to rank cynicism, she encouraged readers of the report to carefully weigh their candidates’ words and actions.

The 25 year old knows the challenges facing young people today, the competing tensions between Vila and village, kastom and 21st Century culture. She combines 6 years of living and learning overseas with the intimate understanding of life in the islands that only those born into it can possess.

Vanuatu society is among the rapidly diminishing number that still guarantee their members a place and a purpose in life. Traditional life is clearly delineated – not to say boring – in almost every way. Family ties, rank and gender define every aspect of one’s existence. If you are an adult male in a family in good standing, life is very good indeed. But the situation degrades from there.

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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.

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Mercenary, Missionary, Manager, Monarch

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

Being an honest, ethical and competent MP isn’t something that a candidate can easily stump for. That’s mostly because it’s not easy to distinguish yourself from your pathologically dishonest opponent, who’s made a career of lying to everyone, even himself. It’s a rare politician indeed that doesn’t promise to be effective and to stand up for the principles of the people he’s speaking to at the moment, whatever they may be.

Despite innumerable past disappointments, honesty, ethical behaviour and competence should be assumed. They should be right there in the job description.

Should be.

In countries the world over, the political scene attracts the same kinds: There’s the Mercenary: charismatic, mercurial, willing to say or do anything as long as the price is right. There’s the single-minded Missionary: often blinded by the brilliance of his own vision. There’s the Manager, who finds herself organising others because if she didn’t nothing would ever get done. There’s the Monarch, for whom power is an end in itself, not a job but a state of being.

All of these are required in order for a government to operate, though each in its measure. Take any one away and things break down. Allow too many of a given kind… and things break down. The chemistry of government relies as much on manoeuvrability and opportunism as it does on organisation and direction.

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Practical Policy

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

Election season is well underway. For most people, it’s unrolling as it always has. The usual gifts are handed out to the usual suspects. A chief receives a free vendor stall at the Independence ceremonies in exchange for delivering his community’s support. A prospective candidate rounds up a few dozen friends and spends an evening doling out kava and chatting. An MP tours from village to village with a truckload of pots, pans and bags of rice. A prospective MP buys the truck itself.

Generally, these transactions are notably free of platform or policy discussions. The tradition doesn’t really work that way. It’s not that candidates don’t have agendas; they do. Nor are they hiding anything, necessarily; it’s just that, at this level, they don’t play the policy game.

As they’ve done for thousands of years, leaders invest their time and wealth in buying the support of the dominant personalities in their community. They do so by the most direct means possible: bags of rice, pots and pans, a favour here, a favour there. It’s simple, direct and tangible for all involved. The price of a vote is lamentably low, but that’s just a reflection of the value voters put in today’s government.

Occasionally, though, there arises that rarest of political creatures, a candidate with a conscience, and a policy platform to prove it.

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