Freedom in the World
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A record number of candidates competed in the September 2008 parliamentary elections, and Edward Natapei was chosen as prime minister. Later in the year, the opposition failed on three occasions to bring about no-confidence votes against Natapei. Meanwhile, the government raised the country’s minimum wage for the first time in three years.
The archipelago now known as Vanuatu was governed as an Anglo-French “condominium” from 1906 until independence in 1980. The Anglo-French legacy continues to split society along linguistic lines in all spheres of life, including politics, religion, and economics.
Widespread corruption and persistent political fragmentation have caused many governments to collapse or grow dysfunctional. To restore public trust and government stability, Prime Minister Serge Vohor in 2004 proposed constitutional amendments that would bar no-confidence votes for 12 months before and after a parliamentary election, require a by-election in any constituency whose representative changed parties, and extend parliamentary terms from four to five years. Parliament approved these proposals for a constitutional referendum in 2005, but the vote has yet to be held.
In February 2007, the electoral office increased the size of the multiseat parliamentary constituency for the island of Efate, where the capital is located, from four to six seats. However, the separate constituency for urban Port Vila itself was reduced from six seats to four.
The government declared a two-week state of emergency in the capital on March 3, following deadly clashes between people from Tanna and Ambrym islands in the Blacksands squatter area, which was home to thousands of migrants from the outer islands. Public meetings were prohibited during the emergency, and some restrictions on freedom of movement were imposed. The violence, sparked by allegations of black magic, killed two people and led to 200 arrests.
Parliamentary elections were held in 2008, and a record 341 candidates competed for all 54 seats. Although there were a handful of reports of fraud and irregularities, mainly from opposition candidates, the elections were deemed credible.The Vanua’aku Partywon 11 seats, followed by the Vanuatu National United Party with 8, the Union of Moderate Parties with 7, and the Vanuatu Republican Party also with 7. On September 22, Parliament elected Edward Natapei of the Vanua’aku Party to succeed Ham Lini as the new prime minister; Natapei had previously served as prime minister from 2001 to 2004. The opposition subsequently attempted to unseat Natapei with three separate no-confidence votes in October, November, and December. However, a lack of parliamentary support compelled them to withdraw their proposals in each instance.
Vanuatu secured $66 million in development assistance over five years from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account in 2006, but real progress on economic reform and strengthening the rule of law remain difficult in a political environment dominated by ethnic, tribal, and personal rivalries. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that Vanuatu is making progress in creating jobs and increasing per capita income. However, youth unemployment remains acute, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and crime has worsened, particularly in the capital. In October 2008, the government raised the minimum wage to $281 per month; the last increase had been in 2005.
Vanuatu is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for parliamentary elections every four years. The prime minister, who appoints his own cabinet, is chosen by the 52-seat unicameral Parliament from among its members. Members of Parliament and the heads of the six provincial governments also form an electoral college to select the largely ceremonial president for a five-year term. The National Council of Chiefs works in parallel with Parliament, exercising authority mainly over language and cultural matters. No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years. Parliamentary coalitions have been formed and dissolved with increasing frequency since the 1990s, and fraud and bribery are widespread in elections.
Many political parties are active, but individual rivalries are intense and politicians frequently switch affiliations. Politics is also driven by linguistic and tribal identity. The leading parties are the Vanua’aku Party, the National United Party, and the francophone Union of Moderate Parties.
Corruption is a serious problem and does not appear to be improving. Corruption allegations forced Prime Minister Barak Sope to resign in 2001. President Alfred Maseng Nalo was removed from office in 2004 after a revelation that he was serving a two-year suspended sentence on corruption charges. In July 2008, the Ombudsman’s office accused Paul Avock Hungai, the mayor of Port Vila, and Harry Iauko, a legislator, of corruption and abuse in selling public land below its assessed value. Vanuatu was ranked 109 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press. The state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu broadcasts in English and French. Radio Vanuatu is the only radio station. The state-owned Vanuatu Weekly, along with several privately owned daily and weekly papers (Vanuatu Daily Post, L’Hebdo Du Vanuatu, Port Villa Press, Nasara, and Ni-Vanuatu), supply international, national, and local news. Most media outlets deliver information in Bismala (a pidgin), English, or French. In August 2008, a new private Bismala-language newspaper, the Bismala Wikli Post, was launched. In March 2008, the private mobile telephone operator Digicel secured a license to operate in the country. The following month, the government sold its majority shares in the private-owned Telecom Vanuatu Limited, effectively ending its monopoly in telecommunications services. The number of internet users is increasing, but diffusion is limited by cost and access challenges outside the capital.
The government generally respects freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country. Members of the clergy have held senior government positions, including president and prime minister. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom.
The law provides for freedoms of association and assembly, and the government typically upholds these rights.Civil society groups are active on a variety of issues. There are five independent trade unions organized under the umbrella Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions. Workers can organize unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Public demonstrations are permitted by law and generally allowed in practice.
The judiciary is largely independent, but it is weak and inefficient. Lack of resources hinders the hiring and retention of qualified judges and prosecutors. Long pretrial detentions are common. Tribal chiefs often adjudicate local disputes, but their punishments are sometimes deemed excessive. Vanuatu has no military. The Vanuatu Mobile Force is a paramilitary wing of the small police force, and both are under the command of a civilian police commissioner. Reports of police abuse are infrequent and minor. Prison conditions are poor. In December 2008, 30 inmates escaped from the main prison in Port Vila following a fire; the government said that it would investigate the prisoners’ claims of abuse and poor living conditions there.
Vanuatu is suspected of being used as a transit point for trafficked persons heading to North America, Japan, and Western Europe for prostitution and labor.
Local traditions are frequently sources of discrimination against women. There are only two women in parliament. Violence against women is common and particularly severe in rural areas. Spousal rape is not a crime, and no law prohibits domestic abuse or sexual harassment. Most cases go unreported because the victims fear reprisal or are discouraged by family pressure, and the police and courts generally hesitate to intervene or impose stronger punishments on offenders. The traditional practice of “bride payment,” or dowry, remains common; critics charge that it encourages the view that women are property.