Vanuatu narrowly avoided a political crisis as Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Wednesday.
The putsch was led by former prime minister and now opposition leader Bob Loughman, who urged for the immediate election of a new prime minister in a no-confidence motion submitted to Parliament.
Loughman has criticized Kalsakau’s foreign policy decisions, saying in the no-confidence motion that they had undermined Vanuatu’s independence, sovereignty, and position as a non-aligned state. Guardian Australian reported that this list of grievances included a security deal Vanuatu signed with Australia in December last year.
“Prime Minister Maau’koro [Kalsakau] without the authorization from the Council of Ministers did proceed to execute the Security Pact with a development partner,” the motion read.
Despite the motion not mentioning Australia directly, this is the only pact of its kind signed under Kalsakau’s leadership. It further stated that: “The Hon Prime Minister and his Government must conduct its relations impartially and not allow our independent and sovereign nation to be sucked into a game it does not want and to be used inappropriately by competing nations to exert dominance in our region.”
The opposition’s grievances also include accusations that the government is exerting undue influence on state institutions and intimidating public administrators.
One of the issues made public has been a disagreement with the government over raising the nation’s minimum wage, which was lifted 36 percent in June – from 220 Vanuatu vatu per hour ($1.82) to 300 vatu ($2.48).
Tourism and Trade Minister Samson Samsen resigned to join the opposition bloc on Monday, in a further blow to the government.
However, despite the best efforts of the opposition, the vote failed. The no-confidence motion fell short of an absolute majority, gaining 26 votes compared to the 23 votes against.
There are 52 seats in Parliament, with one seat remaining vacant and one MP – Bruno Leingko – overseas seeking medical treatment, meaning there are currently 50 members in the country able to vote. Section (42)(2) of the nation’s constitution stipulates an absolute majority to pass a vote of no-confidence in a prime minister. This required 27 MPs to vote against Kalsakau.
In a press conference before the vote, Kalsakau labeled the move against him as “irresponsible” and that there was “no basis” for his removal. He also said that the instability created by having a no-confidence motion only eight months after an election could hinder tourism and investments in Vanuatu.
“Even though they claimed to command majority they did not make it to Parliament,” he told the Vanuatu Daily Post.
He also noted that more foreign leaders had visited Vanuatu under his leadership in eight months than in the previous two years under Loughman.
Before the vote, RNZ Pacific reported that Deputy Prime Minister Matai Seremaiah and his party was calling the opposition’s bluff, with the government MPs boycotting Parliament sittings.
“So the speaker has adjourned Parliament to Wednesday, as per the standing orders, and again, now, everyone knows that they don’t have the number as they claim as of last night,” Seremaiah said.
“We will be ready to defeat the motion against the Prime Minister, because, again, the onus is on them to have a 27 to carry out what they intend to do.”
Kalsakau told a press conference on Tuesday his government would set up a capital development fund. This would be used to buy new aircraft and build roads, to boost the tourism-reliant economy. He also reshuffled his cabinet in a move designed to win support ahead of the vote.
The Bigger Picture
The debate, of course, is part of a larger game of geopolitical chess that is now playing out in the Pacific. Pacific nations – many once home to European colonists – are now independent or under self-determination, but with a need for extensive financial aid from high-income countries.
China and the United States, along with their respective allies, have been vying for military, economic, and diplomatic supremacy in the region, using any small opportunity to gain influence.
The reason behind the no-confidence vote was largely down to a perception by the opposition that Vanuatu has abandoned its non-aligned approach by signing the security deal with Australia. Loughman himself had been previously criticized for going in the opposite direction and being too friendly with China.
Matai Seremaiah, speaking at the arrival of a Chinese medical ship last week, said “health and security ties are an important part of our bilateral relations,” according to a post on the prime minister’s Facebook page.
There is a distinct feeling that the battle over the Pacific is echoing the Kipling-esque debates from the 19th century around the “White Man’s burden.” The massive issues with Chinese internal politics aside, the West has seemed relatively uninterested in the region until Chinese diplomacy started to take hold.
China has been a major infrastructure lender to Vanuatu. Beijing donated the Parliament building, a major stadium and even the prime minister’s office. It also focused on the nuts and bolts of regional development, including the building of roads and wharves.
On the other side, Australia has been a major benefactor to the Vanuatu economy, with 29 percent of imports coming from Canberra. Australia is also the largest provider of development and humanitarian assistance to the nation.
Australia’s main ally, the United States, has attempted to quell Chinese expansion in the region with a series of diplomatic office openings. The security pact China signed with Solomon Islands has certainly been at the forefront of Washington’s mind. Fiji has so far moved more into the U.S. sphere, rejecting overtures from China, and it is hoped Vanuatu will do the same.
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the “new imperialism” in the region, saying that it threatened the sovereignty of smaller states in the Pacific.
“There is in the Indo-Pacific and particularly in Oceania new imperialism appearing, and a power logic that is threatening the sovereignty of several states – the smallest, often the most fragile,” he said in Vanuatu last month. He was the first sitting French president to visit an independent Pacific state.
Macron, of course, was visiting to underline his own nation’s military importance in the area, amid the AUKUS deal taking center stage and leaving France out, as well as the contentious independence issue in New Caledonia. Despite being a NATO ally, France has notoriously occupied a position of putting their own interests first, even at at the cost of irritating the United States. The AUKUS snub, at the hands of former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, also remains at the forefront of many minds in Paris.
Despite the outcome of the no-confidence vote, there is no doubt the constant political sniping – both by lawmakers and international players – is damaging to the internal politics of Vanuatu. Focusing on infrastructure and development needs to be at the forefront, rather than juvenile squabbling.
Jenny Ligo, chairwoman of the political advocacy group Vanuatu Women Against Crime and Corruption, said that another change of government would be disastrous for the nation’s reputation.
“One of my grave concerns is that I think there is a lot of uncertainty,” she said to Guardian Australia. “International development partners, if they really want to help Vanuatu, they should focus on the nation. They shouldn’t focus on these political issues.”