What political crises in Vanuatu and Samoa tell us about their past and future

Samoa's PM: Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa (Vaafusuaga Samalaulu Fonoti/Wikimedia Commons)
Written by Terence Wood

In recent months, both Vanuatu and Samoa have endured political crises. To a casual observer in Canberra or Wellington, their travails might seem part of a common political malaise that affects much of the Pacific. This isn’t the case though. The polities of the Pacific have similarities, but they differ in important ways: different dynamics, different challenges, and different pathways forward.

Vanuatu’s recent woes stem from a split between the speaker of parliament and the prime minister, which led to an attempt to remove the speaker. The speaker refused to go. The supreme court took his side. And as a result, 19 government MPs, including the prime minister, boycotted parliament in protest. The speaker then ruled that, because of the boycott, the MPs had vacated their seats. Next, the speaker’s decision was challenged via a long and winding road (with bifurcations) in the courts. At the time of writing, the MPs are still in parliament, but their position is precarious, hinging on a court petition.

A single political crisis of this sort, while unhelpful during a pandemic, hardly makes Vanuatu unusual. OECD countries have many equally chaotic episodes (or worse!) strewn throughout their histories. Vanuatu’s problem is that these events weren’t a one off: the country suffers ongoing, scandal-plagued political instability.

Samoa’s crisis had its origins in political stability: too much of it. At the helm of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), the country’s former Prime Minister, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, had been in power since 1998. Once invulnerable, recent government blunders and unpopular policies left Tuila’epa open to political challenge, and that’s what happened this year. Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, formerly Tuila’epa’s deputy, joined the newly formed Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party and led it to a narrow electoral victory.

So far so good: an election saw a long-serving prime minister voted out. The crisis came when Tuila’epa refused to accept the result. This led to uncertainty and a trip through the courts. Only very belatedly did Tuila’epa concede defeat.

Two Pacific countries: one with too much instability, one with too little. Two very different polities.

Before discussing the differences, it’s worth noting the similarities. The courts performed well, and in both countries, voting publics have been patient amidst the uncertainty.

More fundamentally, until recently at least, there has been another key similarity between Samoa and Vanuatu. Neither country has had programmatic electoral politics – politics in which most voters decide who to vote for on the basis of national issues. Instead, most voters have chosen candidates on the basis of local concerns, sometimes supporting candidates they think will help them directly, other times voting for candidates on the basis of familial or community obligations. Specifics have differed between, and within, each country, but the fundamental local focus of most voters is something the countries have had in common. (It’s also something they have in common with some other Pacific countries and much of the developing world.)

The outcome of localised, clientelist politics in Samoa and Vanuatu has been very different though. In Vanuatu, voters’ focus on the local has come with fluid political loyalties amongst MPs and weak parties. This has contributed to instability. In Samoa, on the other hand, the opposite has happened: particularly since the 1980s, it has brought dominant parties and domineering prime ministers.

What’s behind the difference?

Political history isn’t monocausal. It’s also hard to unpack. So, I’m not certain of the answer, but I think the key dynamic is as follows.

Even prior to the colonial era, Samoa was close to being a singular nation state. It also had strong, hierarchical, customary political institutions. These have changed with time but still exist. With them, comes order, and potential for the type of collective action and political interaction required to allow a single party, or politician, to dominate politics.

Vanuatu, on the other hand, wasn’t even close to being an individual nation in the pre-colonial era. Its islands were bundled together by competing colonial powers racing to build empires.

The colonial epoch left Vanuatu with a francophone/anglophone political divide. This influenced post-independence politics, but never provided the grounds for enduring, coherent political movements. And there was nothing at a national level in Vanuatu akin to the customary institutions that have helped shape Samoan politics.

Vanuatu also lacks alternative sources of cohesion like the class-based political movements that emerged from the industrial revolution in many OECD countries.

As a result, Vanuatu has found itself stuck with fluid parliamentary loyalties and transactional politicking. There are bona fide reformers in Vanuatu, but they haven’t been able to build a bloc in parliament large enough to govern with or a political movement large enough to transform politics from the bottom up.

Looking to Vanuatu’s future, an obvious question is whether such political movements could emerge. OECD countries are no guide here. They had industrial revolutions. Vanuatu won’t. But perhaps something else might bring change: youth-led, internet-based activism? Or energetic grassroots campaigners? Perhaps. Political problems seem stubborn in Vanuatu, but seeds of potential change do exist.

Very different questions loom over Samoa’s political future. The most important is whether the 2021 election in Samoa heralds a change to competitive politics driven by national issues. If it does, it ought to be good news: when political fortunes hinge on public satisfaction with government performance, politicians are incentivised to govern well.

I wouldn’t bet on change: successful political transformations are rare. FAST grew quickly and could collapse equally swiftly, leaving little legacy. Or it might become an unhelpful hegemon, as the HRPP was for so long. After all, Samoa’s customary institutions haven’t been transformed.

I wouldn’t rule change out though. Transformations may be rare, but they do occur. National issues played a larger role than usual in the 2021 election. FAST’s campaigning style and the depth of its connections with diaspora were new too. Possibly with additional ingredients, Samoa’s informal institutions may mesh well with competitive politics.

It’s a mistake to assume political dynamics are identical across the Pacific. It’s equally mistaken to conclude its countries are stuck with their present political woes. The past casts a long shadow, but throughout the region it’s possible to find people trying to build new futures, starting with the politics of today.

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Disclosure

This research was undertaken with support from the Pacific Research Program, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the author only.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.

9 Comments

  • Your point about the differences in Vanuatu society such as the anglophone/francophone divide spilling over into the political arena is spot on. Another impact of these divisive elements is that they breed too many political parties which promote differing Policies concerning national issues and these parties when elected into Parliament, don’t have the capacity to form a one party Government since none of them have the capability to command the majority of the 52 seats, thus giving rise to the Coalition Government which has been the status quo in Vanuatu since the 1990’s. A Government of such nature is fragile due to the differences harboured by these political parties and this is evident by the fact that there had never been a Coalition Government in Vanuatu that lasted it’s entire term, apart from the Coalition led by Former PM Salwai which was the first to do so. However, that was not the case from 1980-1991 when there were only two prominent political parties in Vanuatu which resulted in an 11 year period of Governance by the Vanuaaku Pati, a fact that prompted some to call for Legislators to reduce the number of Political Parties in order to facilitate a healthy Political outcome, an option which some analysts pointed out is contrary to democratic principals.

    • Thank you Ness,

      Good point: in Vanuatu, as in Solomons and PNG, numerous parties in parliament (plus independents depending on rules) lead to coalition politics, and coalition politics contributes to instability and transactional politicking.

      Laws designed to reduce party numbers are tempting, but may backfire, or have limited effects, and — as you rightly state — are worryingly anti-democratic. They probably aren’t the pathway to change.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Terence

  • Very interesting insight Terence. One of the emerging trends in Vanuatu observed in last legislature and current legislature is the quality of debates in Vanuatu’s parliament which seems to silence many who enter the parliament with limited experiences of politics and understanding of how government administration operates including general knowledge of global development issues and challenges.

    There are now many young experienced politicians in parliament who are well qualified. Once the parliamentary debates become more evidenced based and hold both sides in scrutiny then we expect people to realise the potential of voting someone with high calibre. Already you can tell the differences of quality of leaders in parliament by listening to them during parliament session. I personally see a possibility for leadership transformation.

    I thought this is one of potential observation.

    • Thank you Greg,

      That’s a very interesting observation. The same discrepancy exists Solomon Islands, where I’ve had the chance to witness parliament in action – a small number of MPs have a clear interest in national issues, and capacity to address them, and they engage a lot. But most MPs don’t.

      But in Solomons there doesn’t seem to be a trend of improvement over time. If you’re witnessing change in Vanuatu (even if it’s just a trend in potential performance), that’s interesting, and possibly significant. Presumably it stems from voters placing more emphasis on candidates’ capacity to address national issues?

      Terence

  • The bad news is in Vanuatu they MPs work for a few masters, the generous donors sometimes cleverly disguised.There is nothing sacred about political democracy and certainly not political parties. If their offer – their Ballot – is unacceptable to customary Values, then don’t accept it. Politics is for kids,and for the west. How did Trump win with lesser popular votes loving loyalists: stop immigration to preserve white identity, tarriff on China goods to revive manufacturing in USA.This can’t be overlooked! Sounds like everyone in American politics.
    Well Trump was divisive but that didn’t lead to the 2020 election having low turnout.😀

  • Thank you Anna for a very thought-provoking comment.

    I agree with much of what you say, I’ll just note two points of potential disagreement for discussion’s sake.

    Point 1:
    You’re certainly correct that politics in a country like the US (or Australia or NZ) often involves people or organisations acting for the sake of advancing their own interests (usually financial interests).

    The crucial difference between the US, Aus, or NZ, and countries where clientelism is prevalent though, is that in the US, Aus & NZ, engagement usually occurs with a view to changing national policy. For example, wealthy people striving to have tax rates lowered. Or, to give an example from New Zealand, farmers trying to stay out of our emissions trading scheme. This differs from clientelist countries. In clientelist countries politics usually hinge around actors trying to gain personal or very localised benefits.

    Point 2:

    The question of proximity is very interesting. Jack Corbett has a paper on it in which he argues that proximity makes Pacific politics very different. Interestingly though, in larger Pacific countries, like Solomon Islands (which I know best), MPs actually often end up surprisingly remote, and their connections to communities are mediated through one or two sets of intermediaries. It’s a common complaint in Solomons that people can’t get access to their MPs.

    It would be fascinating to survey Pacific countries and see where proximity between politicians and voters really is strong, and where MPs are actually less accessible.

    I do definitely agree that OECD countries have only limited lessons relevant for most Pacific countries though.

    Thanks again for an excellent comment.

    Terence

  • Thank you for the analysis Terence. Two key points emerge for me: (i) the homogeneity of a state (one language, one culture) makes national cohesion a somewhat simpler exercise than highly multicultural, multilingual states …. both Samoa and Vanuatu have key high-level customary institutions but as the article states, one has more influence over politics blurring the separation of state, (church) and custom governance, while the other has a more pronounced separation similar to other democratic systems around the world. (ii) Political patronage (which is common globally, see for example the USA where political patronage is institutionalized and even encouraged through political financing) at the expense of platform-based, programmatic electoral politics has been a persistent trend, most likely due to scale. Comparisons with larger, more populous states are possibly redundant given the greater proximity of political leaders to people in smaller states like those we have here in the Pacific. Is it a simple equation of political proximity + patronage = clientelist politics + less national cohesion? I would argue that for small island states like ours, OECD lessons in electoral politics are interesting to know, but fundamentally we should be aiming to reframe democratic/political practice to our realities. I would aim for systems that foster political proximity + strategic issues-based politics + public accountability to build national cohesion.

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