Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu

 

Vanuatu 1995-1998.

Author/s: Michael Morgan

Source:
Journal of Pacific history; Issue: Nov, 1998

Vanuatu underwent its fifth national election in March 1998, in the middle of the parliamentary term. Called on the request of Prime Minister Serge Vohor in preference to facing a motion of no confidence from within his own party, the elections resulted in a coalition government between the Vanua'aku Pati (VP) and one of its breakaway factions, the National United Pati of Father Walter Lini (NUP). Running on a platform of government renewal and accountability the coalition sought to redress the situation in which:

 

   The people of Vanuatu ... no longer trust the government ... to provide the
   services that they need ... Investors and workers have lost confidence that
   it can implement its policies to ensure that the economy grows and in the
   end raise the standards of living of the people.(1)

 

Since the previous national elections in 1995, three coalition governments led by the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) had governed Vanuatu. Undermined by a leadership struggle within the party and shifting allegiances amongst its coalition partners, there were three changes of government and eight major cabinet reshuffles between November 1995 and November 1997. In this environment the provision of services to the islands deteriorated and the implementation of coherent policy became negligible.

In early 1997 Prime Minister Vohor began the implementation of the Comprehensive Reform Programme (CRP), supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and foreign aid donors, citing the need for government renewal and the overhaul of Vanuatu's social, political and economic structures. It was a well-received initiative in the political turbulence. Added to this scenario, the Office of the Ombudsman released a series of reports implicating high-ranking politicians and bureaucrats in gross mismanagement and corruption. Drawing acclaim from throughout the region as the defender of accountability and governmental transparency, Ombudsman Marie Noelle Ferrieux Patterson engendered for herself considerable hostility from many of Vanuatu's most experienced politicians, as a personal opponent and political agitator: the Ombudsman was blamed for the crisis of confidence in the government. However, the implementation of the reform agenda was derailed by struggles over its control between parties in a disparate coalition that eventually culminated in the fall of the Vohor regime in November 1997.

From the outset the parliament constituted in the 1995 elections was unstable. Although the main parties each claimed that they would be able to constitute government in their own right, the elections for the extended 50-seat parliament resulted in no clear majority (see Table 1). Although it won the largest number of seats the Unity Front(2) did not form government, deferring that right to the next largest bloc, the Union of Moderate Parties.

 

TABLE 1: Results of the 1995 elections

Vanua'aku Pati                  13
Melanesian Progressive Party     5     Unity Front
Tan Union                        2
Union of Moderate Parties       17
National United Pati             9
Independents                     2
Nagriamel                        1
Fren Melanesia Pati              1

 

Prior to the 1998 elections, tensions within the UMP became apparent when a Supreme Court case was launched to establish the credentials of UMP candidates running in the elections. The Electoral Commission was provided with two conflicting lists: one emanating from UMP President Serge Vohor and one from outgoing Prime Minister Maxime Carlot Korman and his finance minister Willie Jimmy. Although the Chief Justice, Charles Vaudin D'Imercourt, ruled in favour of Korman's list, it was clear that Korman, as outgoing Prime Minister, and Serge Vohor, as UMP President, were competing for dominance in the UMP.

The strength of the feud only became clear in the month after the elections when the two UMP factions negotiated separately to form government. Carlot Korman's Natora Faction signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Walter Lini's National United Party. On 3 December 1996, Vohor attempted to dismiss Carlot from the party on the grounds that he had negotiated without the consent of the National Executive, and announced on 4 December the formation of a coalition government with the Unity Front, offering the Deputy Prime Ministership to the Vanua'aku Pati leader Donald Kalpokas. The same week, Korman and Jimmy convened the UMP `Special Council' and resolved to suspend Vohor from the party presidency and annul the agreement with the Unity Front. The dispute was resolved on 21 December by a compromise deal generated from within the UMP executive: Vohor was ratified as party president and preferred Prime Minister, relegating Carlot Korman to the position of Speaker of the House, a role he had fulfilled in the first parliament in 1980. The National United Pati was chosen as the coalition partner.

Although Vohor stated that the dispute was buried, 48 days later he resigned rather than face a motion of no confidence generated by the Unity Front and a faction of six MPs loyal to Korman. In all attempt to withdraw quorum, Vohor led his faction and the NUP in a boycott of the remainder of the February parliamentary session. Korman was sworn in as Prime Minister on 22 February 1996 and had his election ratified by the Supreme Court in early March.(3) The UMP took only three ministries, maintaining the Prime Ministership but conceding eight ministries to the Unity Front. Toppled by an internal power struggle, Vohor not only lost the Prime Ministership but was also excluded from government. The ramifications were profound. The disintegration of the largest party within a parliament in which no party could claim a majority in the first place meant even a minor shift in allegiance could -- and did -- effect a change in government.

In 1996 the Office of the Ombudsman, provided for in the 1980 Constitution, became fully operational. In late March, a delegation from the Papua New Guinean Ombudsman's Commission visited Vila as part of an attempt to strengthen the powers of the embryonic Office through draft legislation for the enactment of a Leadership Code to regulate the behaviour of politicians in office. In July 1996 the Korman government was rocked by the release of an Ombudsman's report detailing the involvement of the Minister of Finance, Barak Sope, the First Secretary of the Ministry, George Borugu, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Samson Ngwele, and the Prime Minister, Maxime Carlot Korman, in a financial scam which could have bankrupted Vanuatu. The report claimed that on 1 April 1996 an Australian businessman had convinced the government to issue 10 Letters of Guarantee each worth $US10 million, the sale of which would raise instant funds for the government generating 'billions of dollars in development funds'.(4) The report represented the first shot in a war of words between the Ombudsman and key politicians. In response to the report, Korman issued a letter to the Ombudsman indicating that his government no longer considered the enactment of a Leadership Code important and would now consider the efficacy of the Ombudsman's Act, concerned that it conflicted with the Secrecy Act.(5)

 

Korman weathered the political storm, but pressure from the Ombudsman and the threat of his alliance disintegrating forced a cabinet reshuffle. At the Vanua'aku Pati's 26th National Congress on 10 August, backbenchers called for the party to withdraw from the Unity Front and the coalition government, because of their coalition partners' implication in the scandal. Within a day, Korman announced the demotion of Melanesian Progressive Party Ministers, Barak Sope and William Edgell. Since being sworn in as Minister of Finance in February, Sope had failed to provide a development budget and an Annual Budget for 1996-1997.(6) Edgell, the Minister for Lands, had attempted to undermine the Urban Lands Policy agreed to by the five parties represented in the coalition government. Sope refused to accept his demotion and initiated negotiations with the opposition. In mid-August the Unity Front was officially disbanded and a new grouping known as MTF, combining the Melanesian Progressive Party, Vincent Bulekone's Tan Union and the Fren Melanesia Pati of Albert Ravutia, emerged and joined forces with Vohor's UMP faction and the National United Pati to topple Korman. Korman fired Sope, Edgell and Bulekone from the government and accepted the resignation of Ravutia. On 30 September a motion of no confidence was passed in parliament with a simple majority of 28 seats from 50 and Serge Vohor regained the Prime Ministership. Soon after, Serge Vohor and Willie Jimmy, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, left on a state visit to French Polynesia, leaving Barak Sope as caretaker Prime Minister.

In October the political in-fighting was overshadowed by the abduction of President Jean Marie Leye Lenelcau by the Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF). On 26 August Hilda Lini, informed the house of a plot by the Vanuatu Mobile Force to overthrow the parliament and install a caretaker Prime Minister and council of ministers that would take orders from a Military Council. While he denied the possibility of a coup, Police Commissioner Luke Siba stated that a number of politicians had been seeking the support of the VMF in order to stage one, but denied police or VMF complicity.(7)

The VMF, however, were no longer in Siba's control. After striking for several weeks without success, on 12 October the VMF impounded the patrol boat RVS Takoro, occupied the Police Headquarters, Bauerfield international airport, Telecom and Radio Vanuatu, sending shock waves throughout the region. The troops flew the President to Malekula to meet acting Prime Minister Barak Sope. Their intention was not to sieze the state: the VMF was pushing to claim $US980,000 in outstanding allowances. Sope was forced to agree to the VMF's demands: he promised both an amnesty for the leaders of the `industrial coup' and the payment of outstanding allowances. Vohor and Jimmy cut short their state trip, and returned to Port Vila immediately.

On 19 October the Vanua'aku Pati and the National United Pati concluded negotiations for a reconciliation with a kastom ceremony at the Chiefs' Nakamal. The reconciliation led the Vanuatu Weekly to ask when it would be that the two parties would form government.(8) The Ombudsman released another report alleging that Sope had again gambled with the nation's assets in a dubious financial deal, this time with an Australian multimedia development company who wished to establish an Internet banking centre in Port Vila. Sope's handling of the VMF 'industrial coup' and his involvement in financial scams made the acceptance of the Vanua'aku Pati as a coalition partner easier.

 

In the New Year, the Vohor government began the process that was to overhaul Vanuatu's political system. In February ex-South Pacific Forum Secretariat Deputy Nikenike Vurobaravu was engaged to coordinate the development and implementation of the Comprehensive Reform Programme, lauded as the country's best chance of reversing trends of economic stagnation, poor public performance by politicians and waning confidence in the institutions of governance.(9) The programme's primary function was the reduction of the public sector and the encouragement of the private sector to gear Vanuatu's economy towards the international market.(10) Vohor signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Asian Development Bank, agreeing to the gradual implementation of the CRP, including provision for the transference of ADB aid money only on the completion of certain criteria. The first target was the review of tariffs and elimination of the majority of duty exemptions to be replaced early in 1998 by a Value Added Tax. It was not simply the document by which Vanuatu would be rationalised: it also was the blue-print, according to its writers, by which the `poor performance of the institutions of government' would be rectified through the strengthening of the Office of the Ombudsman and the enactment of a leadership code.(11)

While the government developed the apparatuses for the project, the difficulty of implementing the reform package became clear. In late May 1997 Vohor and Korman temporarily reconciled their differences. Despite the fact that it had just gained the allegiance of five dissident NUP MPs, the Vanua'aku Pati was dropped from the coalition and replaced by the Melanesian Progressive Party and Korman's UMP faction. Within two months, the new administration became the subject of another Ombudsman's report. In July 1997, the Ombudsman filed a claim with the Supreme Court against 23 members and former members of parliament, including Prime Minister Serge Vohor, Barak Sope, Maxime Carlot Korman and Willie Jimmy, who had been granted up to five million vatu compensation for loss of income after they lost their seats in the national parliament in 1988 during an attempted administrative coup against the Vanua'aku Pati government.

While Vohor continued to pledge support for the Comprehensive Reform Programme, moves were afoot to undermine the Ombudsman. The Pacific Islands News Association awarded Ferrieux Patterson the Annual Pacific Freedom of Information Award at their conference in Port Vila in July, but the embarrassment drawn upon the politicians named in the report made the Ombudsman's removal a priority. In an interview with the Vanuatu National Broadcasting Corporation in August, Vohor stated that

 

   NiVanuatu must run their own affairs, but not let their former colonialists
   to decide their affairs. I will not allow people with colonial ideas to
   come and dictate the niVanuatu on what is right and what is wrong.(12)

 

In October, a private member's bill tabled in the national parliament by William Edgell, and supported by Walter Lini, Barak Sope, Willie Jimmy, Serge Vohor and Maxime Carlot Korman, sought to repeal the Ombudsman's Act of 1995, effectively removing the office's investigative powers. Although the Vanua'aku Pati opposed it, the reconciliation of the UMP in May assured the passage of the bill, designated Decision 125, by 28 votes to 13.(13)

 

Constitutionally, Decision 125 was ultra vires. The Ombudsman is appointed by the President for a five-year term and can only be removed from office by a tribunal appointed by the President in case of bankruptcy, conviction of criminal charges, gross misconduct or permanent incapacitation. Leye himself refused to promulgate the bill, stating that he was `Scared to go along with ideas that are intended to cover something up'.(14)

Ferrieux Patterson contested the bill in the Supreme Court. In November Justice Oliver Saksak judged Decision 125 unconstitutional and of no legal or other effect. In the words of the Ombudsman's legal counsel, the decision was 'a signpost to the executive as to their correct role under the separation of powers as set out in the constitution'.(15) Yet constitutionality was not the main issue. Both Serge Vohor and Walter Lini criticised the Ombudsman for destabilising the country and scaring off potential foreign investment.(16) As an expatriate -- albeit a naturalised citizen of Vanuatu -- and a woman, Ferrieux Patterson's ability to criticise niVanuatu leaders was made tenuous by Sope's claim that in his kastom `a woman cannot criticise a man or a chief publicly'.(17)

Leymang, First Secretary of the Ministry of Finance and a former Chief Minister of the New Hebrides, likened Ferrieux Patterson to 'a European-style teacher, stern and harsh, wielding a big stick fashioned by foreign powers to punish the young Melanesians'.(18) His thoughts on the Asian Development Bank were similarly couched. The CRP was just another case of neo-colonialism. These developments were viewed uneasily by the Asian Development Bank. Muhammad Tusneem, the ADB's representative in Port Vila, raised concerns with the Prime Minister that Decision 125 was contrary to the spirit of the Comprehensive Reform Programme and jeopardised the ADB's grant assistance to the country, but Vohor was not willing to be dictated to by an external power.

By Early November, Vohor had left the country on a world tour. After his departure the reform process began to look unstable. Walter Lini, the minister responsible for the CRP, announced the formation of the Department of Strategic Management to work with Nikenike Vurobaravu to support the implementation of the project across the Public Service and to facilitate the implementation of the wider social and economic aspects of the package in the New Year. In a letter dated 10 November 1997, the UMP National Council requested that Vohor return from his overseas trip to settle the question of the responsibility for the CRP, a project which, they thought, should be under their control as senior partner in the coalition. The currency of the issue was demonstrated when Korman's faction, supported by the Vanua'aku Pati and the Melanesian Progressive Party, tabled a motion of no confidence in Vohor. The President had stated that should another motion of no confidence be tabled, he would be forced to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections.(19) Although the Prime Minister's right to request the dissolution of parliament was challenged, the Supreme Court ratified the President's decision on 16 January 1998 and elections were set for 6 March.

 

Before the final fall of the Vohor government, the nation was rocked by another Ombudsman report. On 18 December 1997 Ferrieux Patterson tabled a 100-page report detailing gross mismanagement and corruption in the upper echelons of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund (VNPF) -- the mandatory retirement fund for public servants. A December 1993 decision of the Ministry of Finance and the Vanuatu National Provident Fund established a Housing Loan scheme with the money in the VNPF. After two years the scheme had expended many millions of vatu, but only 150 people had benefited from it.(20) Compiled by former Auditor General Pasa Tosusu, the report stated that between 1994 and 1995 the Korman Government had directed the VNPF management to offer special conditions on these loans to government officials, and furnished lists of appointees and ministers to whom they were to be offered. Among the report's recommendations was that Willie Jimmy, Maxime Carlot Korman and nine other ministers at the time resign from parliament and criminal proceedings be initiated.

Unlike other reports by the Ombudsman, this one had an immediate effect, sparking a demonstration from disgruntled VNPF members. On 23 December they began applying for similar loans to those offered to politicians. When those requests failed demands were made for the withdrawal of their contributions altogether, despite the tact that this was illegal under the VNPF Act.

Frustrated, the demonstrators threatened to destroy the VNPF. On 12 January, unable to withdraw their contributions or gain low rate loans, disgruntled VNPF members and a growing crowd of unemployed youths rampaged through the capital, causing an estimated 200 million vatu-worth of damage.(21) A number of business residences were targeted during the melee, including properties belonging to local businessman, Dinh Van Than. Than is chairman of the National United Party's People's Congress. The outnumbered and ill-prepared police were unable to stop the violence. The following day caretaker Prime Minister Vohor broadcast a message on Radio Vanuatu stating that VNPF members would be able to withdraw their money once the new board had been installed.

The 1998 elections demonstrated the frustration many people felt with the instability since 1995. Two hundred and twenty-seven candidates, including 67 independents, contested the elections -- an increase of almost 100 on the previous elections. Port Vila and Luganville recorded voter turnout as low as 33%, causing the Electoral Commission to state that 'The Public cannot complain about not having the chance to elect a new government if they did not like the old one'.(22) However, participation in rural areas was markedly higher: initial reports showed an average 75% turnout.

 

TABLE 2: The 1998 election results

Vanua'aku Pati                 18
Union of Moderate Parties      12
National United Pati           11
Melanesian Progressive Pati     6
John Frum Movement              2
Independents                    2
Vanuatu Repablikan              1

 

Divided by the increasingly bitter leadership struggle, the Union of Moderate Parties gained only 12 seats in the expanded 52-seat house. The Vanua'aku Pati gained 18, and could apportion some of the credit for their gain to the fact that they had not been implicated in scandalous Ombudsman's reports. Maxime Carlot Korman broke away from the Union of Moderate Parties and formed the Vanuatu Repablikan Pati, utilising his significant personal reputation to maintain his seat for Port Vila. The new Prime Minister, Donald Kalpokas, immediately reiterated his support for the Comprehensive Reform Programme and laid down his coalition's platform.

 

   We will not tolerate manoeuvring for selfish political interests. Our
   common vision is to rebuild Vanuatu into a united, well-governed and truly
   democratic nation that must manage its affairs and resources with prudence
   and wisdom for the prosperity of its people and future generations.(23)

 

During the elections the Ombudsman warned voters to ignore pork-barrelling tactics from politicians. The popular Wan Smol Bag theatre group in a number of radio and television clips reiterated her message. For Nikenike Vurobaravu, who resigned his commission as Comprehensive Reform Programme Coordinator to contest the elections on his home island of Malo, association with government renewal counted for very little. Josias Moli, the former General Manager of the Vanuatu National Provident Fund, defeated Vurobaravu. Moli was implicated in the Ombudsman's report on mismanagement in the VNPF.(24) Vurobaravu claimed that his defeat was due to the fact that, unlike Moli, he was not prepared to bribe the voters. In fact, Vurobaravu claimed that electoral bribery was so rife that even pastors asked him for money.(25) The importance of this personal relationship between politicians and constituency was none the less strong. Barak Sope had been implicated in the most compromising of the Ombudsman's reports, but was re-elected comfortably, polling second behind Donald Kalpokas for the Efate Rural seat. Sope did not underestimate the value of a personal relationship with a community, even if it was not his own. In June 1996 Sope donated 13 water tanks worth over five million vatu, paid for from his MP allowance, to his supporters in Blacksands, Efate. Willie Jimmy, Serge Vohor and Father Walter Lini retained their seats. Willie Jimmy considered his victory a personal one: `I've defeated the Ombudsman twice'.(26)

After the March elections, implementation of the CRP dominated government business, and the VP/NUP coalition's commitment to the project appears strong. On taking office it inherited many of the problems of the Vohor government, primarily ones of an economic nature: on 20 March the President authorised the payment of government salaries in lieu of a 1998 budget which the previous government had failed to pass, allowing the government access to funds equal to a quarter of the 1997 sum to see it through until 31 March. Vanuatu has not possessed a capital reserve surplus since 1992: in May the deficit was estimated at four billion vatu deficit.(27) Government officials have said the countrys dire economic situation is due to the provision of tax concessions to UMP allies and weak tax enforcement capabilities. On 1 May 1998, the Kalpokas government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the ADB for the provision of Programme Loan and Grant Technical Assistance equalling $US22 million, earmarked for the execution of high-priority projects in line with the CRP, namely the reduction of the bureaucracy and the implementation of guidelines for public servants.

 

The Opposition boycotted parliament from 18 May, citing a lack of consultation in the process of CRP implementation. That week, Jean Marie Leye Lenelcau stated that he would not allow Vanuatu to become a puppet republic for any nation that wants to role the South Pacific.(28) Amidst promises from New Zealand and Australia that they would augment their aid donations contingent with the full implementation of the Comprehensive Reform Programme, Leye's statements were indicative of the unease still present with the full acceptance of the project. Although the Kalpokas administration maintains that the enactment of the Leadership Code is consistent with the Constitution, President Jean Marie Leye Lenelcau has stated that he will not support it unless it is made retroactive. Leye's statement echoes fears amongst the UMP, especially Willie Jimmy, that the Leadership Code and the Comprehensive Reform Programme will be more damaging to his party. The importance of the enactment of the Leadership Code is that it was while the UMP was in power that the issues of leadership, accountability and corruption became important. Jimmy is of the opinion that his opponents in the VP and NUP will be equally culpable if their conduct during this period is investigated. On Wednesday 10 June the Supreme Court defeated the President's challenge on the validity of Decision 125, the Edgell Bill, which had repealed the Ombudsman's Act.

Although the image of a reunified Vanua'aku Pati was reassuring, it is unclear whether the current coalition government, as susceptible to fragmentation as its predecessors, will hold. In late April, reports circulated throughout the capital that Serge Vohor had held meetings with leaders of the National United Pati: the opposition still requires only five seats to topple the government.

 

TABLE 2: The 1998 election results

Vanua'aku Pati                 18
Union of Moderate Parties      12
National United Pati           11
Melanesian Progressive Pati     6
John Frum Movement              2
Independents                    2
Vanuatu Repablikan              1

 

(1) Trading Post, 18 Feb. 1998, 4.

(2) A coalition between the Vanua'aku Pati, the Melanesian Progressive Party and the Tan Union.

(3) See David Ambrose, `A coup that failed? Recent political events in Vanuatu,' Journal of Pacific History, 32:3 (1996), 53-66.

(4) Vanuatu Weekly, 13 July 1996, 2.

(5) Pacific Islands Monthly, Sept. 1996, 27.

(6) Vanuatu Weekly, 10 Aug. 1996, 2.

(7) Pacific Islands Monthly, Oct. 1996, 41.

(8) Vanuatu Weekly, 26 Oct. 1996, 3.

(9) Islands Business Pacific, Sept. 1997, 27.

(10) Comprehensive Reform Programme, Republic of Vanuatu, 1997, 4.

(11) Ibid., 10-15.

(12) Vanuatu Weekly, 9 Aug. 1997, 1.

(13) There was one abstention and eight MPs were absent.

(14) Vanuatu Weekly, 22 Nov. 1997, 1.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Trading Post, 26 Nov. 1997, 4.

 

(17) Vanuatu Weekly, 22 Nov. 1997, 3.

(18) Trading Post, 18 Feb. 1998, 1.

(19) Ibid., 26 Nov. 1997, 1.

(20) Vanuatu Weekly, 6 July 1996, 11.

(21) Trading Post, 17 Jan. 1998, 6.

(22) Ibid., 7 Mar. 1998, 1.

(23) Ibid., 1 Apr. 1998, 1.

(24) Vanuatu Weekly, 10 Feb. 1996, 3.

(25) Trading Post, 21 Mar. 1998, 2.

(26) Vanuatu Weekly, 10 Mar. 1998, 2.

(27) Ibid., 30 May 1998, 9.

(28) Ibid., 23 May 1998, 1.

MICHAEL MORGAN -- Research Scholar, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

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