Vanuatu conducts democratic elections but suffers from a pattern of unstable coalition governments. Although political corruption is a major 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 July, an electoral college including lawmakers and provincial leaders elected Nikenike Vurobaravu president. Vurobaravu had served as an ambassador and as high commissioner for Fiji earlier in his career.
- In the snap October elections, the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) won seven seats, as did the Vanua’aku Pati of then prime minister Bob Loughman. Ishmael Kalsakau of the UMP became prime minister in November, heading a multiparty coalition.
|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 the cabinet, is chosen by Parliament from among its members. Prime ministerial elections and no-confidence votes often feature improprieties, as rival coalitions seek to entice members to shift allegiances with offers of cash or ministerial portfolios. Ishmael Kalsakau of the UMP became prime minister in November 2022, a month after a snap parliamentary election was held.
The 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 July 2022, Nikenike Vurobaravu became president after eight rounds.
|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.
Some 17 parliamentarians defected from the government of then prime minister Bob Loughman in early August 2022. President Vurobaravu then dissolved Parliament at Loughman’s request so that the premier could avoid a subsequent no-confidence vote. In the snap October elections, the UMP obtained seven seats, as did Loughman’s Vanua’aku Pati. Fifteen other parties won seats, as did one independent.
Kalsakau and Loughman then canvassed parliamentarians from smaller parties for support. Kalsakau became prime minister in November, with Loughman and his supporters ultimately backing him. At 44 percent, turnout was lower than in previous polls.
|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. Deceased individuals still appeared in the roll for the October 2022 elections.
|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. Politicians frequently switch allegiances. The use of a single-nontransferable-vote system, particularly in larger multimember constituencies, is additionally believed to weaken political parties and encourage fragmentation. It is especially problematic during by-elections when voters may be filling only one vacant seat in a multiseat district.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Vanuatu 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 systemic biases. They are severely underrepresented in elected offices and run for office less frequently than men. Some seats are reserved for women at the municipal level, and women’s rights groups have lobbied for a national-level quota. One woman was elected to Parliament in October 2022, the first time a woman won a seat since 2004.
|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 disrupt governance. Charlot Salwai’s 2016–20 government was the first since 1995 to complete a full four-year term.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Abuse of office and corruption are serious problems, though prosecutors, the ombudsman, and other independent institutions are occasionally effective in combating them.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
The government largely operates with transparency. Parliament sessions are livestreamed. 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.
|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 is dominant. Foreign news services are also available, and about a quarter of the population has access to the internet.
In 2019, the government rejected a work-permit renewal request from Canadian journalist Dan McGarry, publisher of the Daily Post newspaper, and barred him from returning to the country. McGarry claimed that the government retaliated against the newspaper’s coverage of Chinese influence in Vanuatu; the Supreme Court revoked the travel ban at the end of 2019, allowing McGarry to return. His work permit has still gone unrenewed as of the end of 2022.
The Statute Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2021, which amended numerous laws, provides criminal penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment for threatening language, libel, and slander.
|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. 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 can 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, 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 is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation. 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; 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 June 2022, the Loughman government abandoned plans to introduce a five-year term for the chief justice after the opposition and Transparency International objected to the reform package that included the proposal.
|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.
|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, has a reputation for heavy-handed treatment of citizens. Civilian authorities have not been effective in punishing and preventing cases of police brutality.
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 they face societal discrimination that affects their access to employment and economic opportunity in practice. LGBT+ people are not protected by antidiscrimination laws.
The rapid expansion of Chinese-owned businesses has 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, then 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. The state of emergency was lifted in February 2022.
|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.
|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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