Vanuatu conducts democratic elections but suffers from a pattern of unstable coalition governments that do not complete their terms. Although political corruption is a problem, the largely independent judiciary has been able to hold elected officials accountable in high-profile cases. Other persistent problems include domestic violence and societal discrimination against women.
- In December, former prime minister Charlot Salwai and three other former ministers were acquitted on bribery and corruption charges, but Salwai was convicted of perjury, for making a false sworn statement to mislead the court. The corruption charges were in relation to a vote of no confidence that was withdrawn when Salwai was in office in 2016. Deputy Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, who was leader of the opposition at the time, claimed that Salwai bribed two parliamentarians to withdraw their signatures from the no-confidence motion.
- After the March 2020 general elections, the Vanua’aku Pati party formed a coalition government with the Union of Moderate Parties, The National United Party, the Nagriamel political movement, and the Green Confederation Party. Bob Loughman of Vanua’aku Pati was named prime minister in April. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an extreme weather event, significantly impacted voter turnout, which was around 51 percent.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The prime minister, who holds most executive authority and appoints their own cabinet, is chosen by Parliament from among its members. Prime ministerial elections and votes of no confidence often feature improprieties, as rival coalitions seek to entice members to shift allegiances with offers of cash or ministerial portfolios. Bob Loughman became prime minister in April 2020, after the March general elections, winning 31 of the 52 votes in the parliament.
The largely ceremonial president is elected to serve a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of Parliament and the heads of the country’s provincial councils. A two-thirds majority is required, and multiple rounds of voting can be held to reach this threshold. In 2017, Presbyterian pastor Tallis Obed Moses was elected to replace President Baldwin Lonsdale, who died in office.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The 52-seat unicameral Parliament is directly elected for four-year terms in 18 constituencies ranging from one to seven members in size. In the March 2020 elections, Graon Mo Jastis Pati won nine seats, the Union of Moderate Parties and Leaders Party of Vanuatu both won five seats, and the National United Party won four. In total, 18 different parties and individuals were seated in Parliament, including Vanua’aku Pati, which formed a coalition government with the Union of Moderate Parties, The National United Party, the Nagriamel political movement, and the Green Confederation Party. Bob Loughman of Vanua’aku Pati was named prime minister in April. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an extreme weather event, significantly impacted voter turnout, which was around 51 percent.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The electoral framework is generally fair, and elections are administered without bias, but international observers have noted problems including an inaccurate voter roll and understaffing of election management bodies. Moreover, the use of the single-nontransferable-vote system, particularly in larger multimember constituencies, is believed to weaken political parties and encourage fragmentation. It is also especially unfair at by-elections when voters may be filling only one vacant seat in a multiseat district.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Numerous political parties operate without restrictions in Vanuatu. A total of 18 parties and independents won seats in the 2020 elections. Politicians frequently switch allegiances. In mid-2018, the government withdrew proposed constitutional reforms that were meant in part to address party switching and political instability, having failed to reach consensus with the parliamentary opposition. Plans to put these reform proposals to a referendum were abandoned in May 2019.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The country has a record of frequent democratic transfers of power between rival parties.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
There are no major undue constraints on the choices of voters or candidates from outside the political system. Traditional chiefs—represented by the National Council of Chiefs, a consultative body for customary and language matters—exert some influence, but they do not control electoral decisions.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Ethnic minorities enjoy equal political rights. Political groupings have historically been divided in part along linguistic lines, with an Anglophone majority and a Francophone minority.
Women’s political participation is impaired by customary biases, and they are severely underrepresented in elected offices. No women were elected to Parliament in 2020. Only 18 women contested seats in the elections. Some seats are reserved for women at the municipal level, and women’s rights groups have lobbied for a quota at the national level as well.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
The elected prime minister and cabinet determine and implement government policies without improper interference, and the legislature serves as a check on executive power. However, party fragmentation and frequent no-confidence votes have long disrupted governance. Charlot Salwai’s government was the first since 1995 to complete a full four-year term (2016–20).
In June 2020, the ruling coalition voted to suspend 22 opposition parliamentarians, after the opposition boycotted the parliament’s first sitting. The opposition subsequently challenged its suspension in the Supreme Court. Opposition leader Ralph Regenvanu claimed that such boycotts were a regular feature of postindependence parliaments.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Abuse of office and corruption are serious problems, but prosecutors, the ombudsman, and other independent institutions are sometimes effective in combating them.
In December 2020, former prime minister Salwai and three other former ministers were acquitted on bribery and corruption charges, but Salwai was convicted of perjury for making false sworn statement to mislead the court. The corruption charges were in relation to a vote of no confidence that was withdrawn when Salwai was in office in 2016. Deputy Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, who was leader of the opposition at the time, claimed that Salwai bribed two parliamentarians to withdraw their signatures from the no-confidence motion.
In July 2020, Vanuatu’s President Tallis pardoned nine former parliamentarians imprisoned on 2015 conspiracy charges.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
The government largely operates with transparency. Parliament sessions are streamed live on the internet, and elected officials are required to submit financial disclosure reports that can be investigated by the ombudsman’s office, but the documents are not made public. However, leader of the opposition Ralph Regenvanu claimed that the ruling coalition had suspended 22 opposition parliamentarians in June 2020 in order to avoid scrutiny of the government’s financial plans for the coronavirus pandemic.
A new freedom of information law that was adopted in 2016 took effect in 2017, and the government issued an order on implementation later that year. The law was widely welcomed as a positive step, though observers remained concerned about the establishment of fees and other potential obstacles to timely fulfillment of information requests.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
The government generally respects freedom of the press, though elected officials have sometimes been accused of threatening journalists for critical reporting. Publicly and privately owned newspapers publish in English and French. There are a small number of private broadcasters, but the state-owned broadcaster has a dominant position in the sector. Foreign news services are also available, and about a quarter of the population has access to the internet.
In November 2019, the government rejected a work-permit renewal request from journalist Dan McGarry, publisher of the Daily Post newspaper, and barred him from returning to the country later that month. McGarry claimed that the government retaliated against the newspaper’s coverage of Chinese influence in Vanuatu, which the government denied; the Supreme Court revoked the travel ban in December, allowing McGarry to return to Vanuatu.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution’s preamble states that the republic is founded on “Christian principles,” but there is no official religion, and adherents of other faiths can worship freely. Authorities do not enforce a legal registration requirement for religious groups.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
There are no constraints on academic freedom.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
The government does not monitor personal communications, and individuals are able to discuss politics and other matters without interference.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government typically upholds this right in practice. Public demonstrations generally proceed without incident.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
There are no significant constraints on the formation and operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are not required to register with authorities.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers can join unions, bargain collectively, and strike. The right to strike is somewhat impaired by notification rules and the government’s ability to bar such actions in essential services; violations can draw criminal penalties. The umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions (VCTU) is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Union leaders have raised concerns about antiunion pressure on seasonal workers who travel to New Zealand, including from recruiting agents within Vanuatu.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is largely independent, but a lack of resources hinders the hiring and retention of qualified judges and prosecutors. The president appoints the chief justice after consulting with the prime minister and the opposition leader. Other judges are appointed by the president on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC); judges cannot be removed arbitrarily. Tribal chiefs and island courts empowered to hear customary law cases adjudicate local disputes.
Vanuatu’s courts have demonstrated impartiality in recent years through their adjudication of cases involving senior political figures. In 2018, the Court of Appeal ruled against former deputy prime minister Joe Natuman, who appealed his ejection from Parliament after receiving a two-year suspended prison sentence for interfering with a police inquiry when he was prime minister in 2014.
Viran Molisa Trief became the first woman to be a Supreme Court judge in the country in July 2019.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Due process rights are guaranteed by law. However, police do not always uphold legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. Long periods of pretrial detention are not uncommon, largely due to case backlogs in the courts. However, Vanuatu’s pretrial population is relatively low for the region.
Fourteen police officers were suspended in July 2020 after they assaulted villagers on the island of Santo, using firearms and burning private property. The officers had been sent to the island to respond to a land dispute.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
The police paramilitary unit, the Vanuatu Mobile Force (VMF), has a reputation for heavy-handed treatment of citizens. Civilian authorities have not been effective in punishing and preventing cases of police brutality. Natuman’s 2018 conviction stemmed from interference with an investigation regarding high-ranking officers charged with mutiny. In his defense, Natuman claimed he was seeking to bring unity to the troubled police force.
Prisons have suffered from overcrowding, violence, poor living conditions, and lax management that contributes to frequent escapes.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Women are guaranteed legal equality, but in practice they continue to face societal discrimination that affects their access to employment and economic opportunity. LGBT+ people are not protected by antidiscrimination laws.
The rapid expansion of Chinese-owned businesses has sometimes fueled resentment toward Chinese residents. Certain occupations are reserved for ni-Vanuatu as part of a policy to boost employment for the native population.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of movement, which is also respected in practice. In March 2020, President Obed Moses declared a state of emergency to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included travel restrictions and other public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The legal framework is generally supportive of property rights and private business activity. However, irregularities surrounding land deals, and corruption in the Lands Ministry, are persistent problems. Legislation adopted in 2017 was designed to strengthen oversight for the leasing of customary land.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Domestic violence is widespread. Social stigma and fear of reprisal inhibits reporting, particularly in more remote rural areas, and police and courts rarely intervene or impose strong penalties. Government and civil society efforts to combat the problem are inadequately funded. Spousal rape is not specifically criminalized. Women pursuing civil cases related to personal status matters face difficulties paying the required court fees. Only fathers can automatically pass citizenship to their children at birth.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Poverty is extensive, and more than three-quarters of the population rely on subsistence agriculture. The government does not properly enforce health and safety standards, leaving employees in construction, logging, and other industries exposed to hazardous working conditions. Children often perform agricultural work at the family level, and laws on child labor do not meet international standards.
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