Vanuatu’s newly elected Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau Ma’aukoro of the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) may have been elected unopposed last Friday, November 4, 2022, but that does not guarantee him success unless he can retain the support of all his coalition partners.
His government enjoys a majority of 30 members, following recent snap elections on October 13, 2022 – just 18 months from elections due in 2024.
Kalsakau was deputy prime minister in the last government before the dissolution, and his new cabinet line-up includes some of that government’s loudest critics – Ralph Regenvanu of the Graon mo Jastis Pati (GJP), who has been named the new climate change minister , and John Salong as the new finance minister, also from the GJP. Coalition partners include Charlot Salwai’s Reunification Movement for Change (RMC), the Leaders of Vanuatu Party (LPV) led by Tanna MP Jotham Napat, and Sato Kilman’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
Mr Kalsakau had resisted calls from former coalition partners – notably Vanua’aku Pati (VP) of former Prime Minister Bob Loughman Weibur, now appointed leader of the opposition – to continue their rule. If he had agreed to back down with his seven UMP members, it would have been considered a fait accompli. Therefore, it remains a surprise that he ignored those pleas, opting instead to team up with some of his fiercest rivals.
Vanuatu was forced to return to the polls due to the dissolution of parliament by head of state Nikenike Vurobaravu on August 18, after weeks of political wrangling between government and opposition that saw 17 members of Weibur’s government defect to the opposition. . They had cited dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister’s leadership on a number of issues.
Thus, when the country’s Head of State endorsed the decision of the Council of Ministers to dissolve Parliament, echoes of real concern were heard from all sides. Then Leader of the Opposition Regenvanu wrote: specifically to the Head of State, urging caution and His Excellency, VP Party Founder and strong supporter, to exercise caution before dropping the hammer.
On the cost side, the opposition had a valid argument: an early election would cost taxpayers more than if there were to be a change of government through a motion of no confidence. Government revenue forecasts were darkening, with projected revenues significantly affected by the EU decision to cancel visa waiver with Vanuatu.
Previously, Prime Minister Weibur had resisted a few other attempts to dethrone him. It is rare for a leader in Vanuatu to resign gracefully – even for gross misconduct. In 2015, then-Prime Minister Moana Carcasses dragged all ministers in his cabinet down, despite serious corruption charges, and held firmly to power until the day Judge Mary Sey found them all guilty and ordered their immediate imprisonment. Throwing in the towel too easily is perceived as a weakness.
Ahead of October’s snap election, the opposition camped out at Island Magic – a remote resort town just a 16-minute drive northwest of the city of Port Vila – in the hope that Prime Minister Weibur would resign or face to a vote of no confidence. The opposition cited controversial amendments to the national constitution, the illegal securing of a major contract to build an extension to the main referral hospital and the alleged mishandling of senior civil servants’ cases as key reasons for the motion. .
In the run-up to the October 13 elections, the old regime banked on some pre-election promises – the most obvious being that it would continue its rule, when a new term was successfully sought. Call it naivety perhaps, but Mr. Weibur and his cohorts of vice presidents did not believe that Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau would abandon them and propel them to the top job.
Mr. Kalsakau, a lawyer and professional politician, had been a trusted ally since 2020. With his expertise and legal knowledge, Kalsakau has been able to guide the Weibur government, often through quite dangerous waters, since 2020, when the 12th legislature was constituted. The global pandemic has not made things easier.
In June this year, the government of Weibur bizarrely tried to stir up controversy changes to the national constitution under the so-called Eighth Amendment Bill. Yet the party of the Prime Minister’s Vice-President did not fully support the amendments – in particular the changes concerning the mandate of the Chief Justice. VP’s open admission raised eyebrows, with many asking “who then orchestrated the so-called Eighth Amendment?”. Normally, these major changes go through a vetting process, and since they were quite significant amendments, they would require national consultations.
The controversial changes would have increased the number of ministerial portfolios from 13 to 17, dramatically changed who could be considered a citizen and limited the Chief Justice’s term to just five years instead of a lifetime appointment, as has been the case. case for Date. These issues formed the basis of the petition filed against Prime Minister Weibur.
On the floor of parliament, the RMC of Charlot Salwai joined the opposition to boycott the meeting. They maintained their position thereafter until the bill was withdrawn due to lack of adequate support.
Other events occurred during the reign of Weibur-Kalsakau. In 2021, in anticipation of mass hospitalization in the event of a major outbreak of COVID-19 cases, the government circumvented normal procurement processes by awarding a large contract to a local private company to build a massive extension of the hospital worth almost a billion vatu. The contract could still come under scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how the new government will handle this issue, if challenged by coalition partners.
Kalsakau himself was a former supporter of the vice president – his father George Kalsakau was the first chief minister of the former Representative Assembly before independence in 1980. He switched political stripes in 2015 to contest the seat left vacant by former Vice President Edward Nipake Natapei under the Ticket UMP, after disagreements over his own VP party’s decision to back rookie politician Kenneth Natapei – son of the late Edward – to run in the Port constituency Villa.
Such power struggles are not new. They are an integral part of local politics. Moreover, over the years the rulers have struggled to maintain a stable government, made more difficult by the fragmentation of political parties.
The table below shows the results of recent polls and how each of the political parties and groupings fared. Significantly, this demonstrates the enormity of the task ahead for Kalsakau and his deputy, Sato Kilman of the PPP. (Footnote: The PPP has only two elected MPs.)
As governments are formed more out of convenience and political expediency, rather than clear policies, there is little guarantee of stability. It’s no surprise that this government has spent almost three weeks in camp since October 13, trying to narrow down the policy areas they can agree on – at least for the next 100 days in office – the most notable of which is will be political reform. Prime Minister Kalsakau and Regenvanu both came out publicly to reaffirm their reform commitments for the best.
The government has at least eight coalition partners. How the new Prime Minister manages their interests will be key.
Kiery Manassah was a former public relations officer in the government led by Joe Natuman when Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau was attorney general.