Vanuatu goes to the polls today in a snap election brought about by a parliamentary bribery scandal, which culminated in the jailing of 14 MPs in October last year. The MPs, including the Deputy Prime Minister, lost their seats as a result and early elections were announced on 7 December 2015.
The scandal and snap election has put the spotlight on the pervasive issue of corruption in Vanuatu and brought international media attention to the small island nation. The judgement in the bribery case and the consequent jailing of MPs sent a clear signal to the people of Vanuatu that corruption in politics is illegal and should not be tolerated. The jailed MPs, however, did not get this message and applied to stand for the election from prison. Their applications were denied.
264 candidates are contesting the elections for the 52 seats in Vanuatu's parliament. There are 36 parties involved, with many newly formed in the wake of the scandal, and more than 50 independent candidates. The oldest political party in Vanuatu, the Vanua'aka Pati, may benefit because their MPs weren't involved in the scandal; voters may be more inclined to trust the brand. With the election called only seven weeks ago there has not been a lot of time for candidates to prepare and gather resources for their campaigns.
Only nine women have nominated to contest the election. This is particularly disappointing given the strong investment and advocacy by government, donors and NGOs in growing women's political representation. The Pacific has the lowest representation of women in parliament in the world.
Even though Vanuatu was due to have elections later in 2016, the Vanuatu Electoral Commission has been stretched by the snap poll. The Commission has reported that it has not had sufficient resources to prepare and has admitted to election observers from the Commonwealth, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group that the electoral roll is inaccurate, largely due to insufficient time to update it.
A number of young people have been affected by the calling of an early election because those who turned 18 after the middle of 2015 could not register to vote. Candidates from the island of Tanna have also complained about the proxy vote process, claiming other political parties had more chance to take advantage of the amended proxy voting conditions – a claim the Electoral Commission has refuted. Tanna, the island most affected by Cyclone Pam and the El Niño drought, has 26,558 registered voters, the third largest constituency in the country.
This election may herald generational change in Vanuatu politics as many of the old hands have been jailed or otherwise tainted by the scandal. What is certain is that a new coalition government will assume power in Vanuatu as no one party can win sufficient votes to govern in their own right.
It is less certain what the likely make up of that coalition will be, and what kind of impact it will have on governance in Vanuatu going forward.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Michael Coghlan.