Kalsakau Out as Top Vanuatu Court Weights in on No-Confidence Vote

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Kalsakau Out as Top Vanuatu Court Weights in on No-Confidence Vote

Sato Kilman became Vanuatu’s third prime minister in less than 10 months after the Supreme Court ruled that last month’s no-confidence motion had, indeed, passed.

Kalsakau Out as Top Vanuatu Court Weights in on No-Confidence Vote
Credit: Facebook/ Ministry of the Prime Minister – Vanuatu

Less than a month ago, Vanuatu seemed to have avoided a political crisis when then-Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau survived a vote of no-confidence in Parliament. But this week, Vanuatu’s highest court weighed in and ultimately sided against Kalsakau. Sato Kilman, the leader of the People’s Progressive Party, became Vanuatu’s third prime minister in less than 10 months, as Kalsakau’s short reign ended. 

Kalsakau appeared to have narrowly survived the no-confidence vote brought on by opposition leader Bob Loughman in August. The parliamentary speaker ruled that in the 52-seat Parliament 27 votes would be needed to pass the motion. The opposition had fallen one vote short of that mark, with 26 votes for, compared to 23 against. One MP was ill and absent during the vote, and one seat is vacant.

However, last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the opposition had won the motion. Supreme Court Judge Edwin Goldsbrough ruled that an absolute majority — in a parliament of 51 seats, due to the vacancy — is 26. Seoule Simon, the speaker, lodged an appeal, but the Court of Appeal ruled against him. 

Kilman, who has served as prime minister on four occasions, was elected in a secret ballot on Monday — 27 votes to 23. He was the deputy prime minister in Kalsakau’s government, before being removed in May to ensure “stability of the coalition government,” as Kalsakau phrased it.

“Mr. Speaker, first and foremost, I want to say a big thank you to the members of Parliament and the political parties that supported the change in government. Thank you,” Kilman said after becoming prime minister. 

He announced his cabinet immediately, including Bob Loughman – the former prime minister who brought the no confidence vote against Kalsakau – as deputy prime minister and minister of lands. Ulrich Sumptoh was appointed minister of climate change and Johnny Koanapo was returned to his former role as minister of finance. 

The new opposition bloc has appointed Charlot Salwai, another former prime minister, as its leader, while the former climate change minister in the brief Kalsakau government, Ralph Regenvanu, is his deputy. 

The Impact?

Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific expert and associate professor and project lead for the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute in Queensland, told The Diplomat that there wouldn’t be any change in the standing of Vanuatu as a result of the change of government.

The fact that it’s the second change in a year will not diminish Vanuatu’s reputation in the region – it is a regular occurrence in Vanuatu,” she said. 

“There may be some concern about the new prime minister’s pro-Indonesia stance. Elsewhere, Ralph Regenvanu is valued by many as a contributor to climate change diplomacy and other activities and he has now been replaced as Minister for Climate Change.” 

Newton Cain was in Port Vila during the vote on Monday and said the overall mood was “pretty much negative all round” among the nation’s political leaders. 

“People felt that the previous government was largely doing a good job and should have been given more time to get more done,” she said. 

“Mainly, people are frustrated and tired of the political game playing that uses up valuable time and energy that could be spent doing more important things.” 

These include the recovery from a pair of cyclones that hit the country in March as well as economic difficulties which see Vanuatu’s GDP per capita at just over $3,100, and the catastrophic realities of climate change. 

“The vibe around the political turmoil is one of frustration,” Newton Cain told the New York Times. “They just need everyone to sit down, and do their jobs, and do them properly, for a significant period of time.”

Vanuatu also fought a near superhuman battle against major powers to protect the people of the Pacific from climate hazards, calling on the International Court of Justice this year to issue an opinion on whether governments have a legal obligation to protect people from climate change; and whether nations can be sued if they don’t. 

Geopolitical Concerns

One of the concerns in the geopolitical sphere stems from comments Kilman made to the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). He said his government would review the security pact that Kalsakau signed with Australia in December last year, with the new prime minister stating that he was “not sure” if the pact was “in the best interests of Vanuatu or not.”

“If it is not all good, and there needs to be some changes, then we speak with Australia to see what we can do together to make it something workable,” Kilman said. 

“Cases like this, should have been consulted more before a prime minister or a government follows through with it,” he said. “It is nothing to do with Australia… it is to do with leaders in Vanuatu being able to consult each other on matters like this before pursuing.” 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said Australia would continue to work with Vanuatu “to deliver mutual benefits and ensure our shared security.”

“We are looking forward to discussions with the new Vanuatu Government on all areas of cooperation – including their views on the Agreement – to ensure we address the needs of both countries.”

Newton Cain said the security pact was “already under a slow roll” under the previous government, so any changes and debate would be “just a continuation of that.”

If and when the agreement is discussed at government-to-government level, it will likely look very different to what was signed late last year,” she said. 

“Vanuatu is a longstanding member of the [non-aligned movement] and guards its neutrality jealously. There is also a strategic advantage in playing ‘hard to get’ whether with Australia or any other partner.”

One of the reasons put forward by the opposition in bringing about the no-confidence vote originally was that the signing of the security pact had put Vanuatu’s neutral status at risk. Loughman, who himself had been accused of pulling Vanuatu closer to China, said the deal could jeopardize development assistance from Vanuatu’s biggest creditor.

China sent police experts to Port Vila during the political turmoil over the last month and has also provided infrastructure and financial aid in a bid to exert influence in the region. The police “will greatly enhance the ability of the Vanuatu police to maintain social order,” Kalsakau said at the time, according to the Chinese embassy statement.

Vanuatu’s police released a statement saying they had “good working relations with all partners – Australia, New Zealand and China.” 

It remains to be seen at what pace, if at all, change takes place in Vanuatu. But there is always doubt, as Newton Cain surmised: “I’m not confident to predict how long this government will last; we could see another motion of no confidence before the end of the year.”