Voters In Vanuatu Go To Polls In Snap Election

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

264 candidates stand for 52 MP seats

By Hilaire Bule, Michael Walsh and staff

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Jan. 22, 2016) – Voters in Vanuatu go to the polls on Friday for a snap general election called after 14 government MPs were jailed for corruption.

The verdict put half the governing coalition's MPs behind bars and Prime Minister Sato Kilman failed to reach agreement with the opposition to form a national unity administration.

A total of 264 candidates, standing in 52 seats, have had little more than seven weeks to campaign.

Most are members of 36 political parties, many of which have formed in the lead-up to the election. There are still more than 50 independents in the mix.

Observers have said one of the issues with the snap poll was that there were thousands of dead people still eligible to vote — some reports claiming as many as 55,000 registered voters were no longer alive.

The Electoral Commission acknowledged the electoral rolls were inaccurate but said deleting the names of deceased voters was proving difficult because of the need to seek death confirmations from relatives.

Foreign election observers in Vanuatu said their biggest challenge would be flying to outer islands and remote polling places after Air Vanuatu cancelled some domestic flights due to engine problems.

The head of the Melanesian Spearhead Group election observers, former Solomon Islands prime minister Sir Francis Billy Hilly, told Pacific Beat the transport issue was the main challenge facing observers.

Travel a challenge for election observers

"Some of us are supposed to go to Santo, others to Tanna, but we understand from the airline that they had some technical difficulties," he said.

"If we can [get to the islands and polling stations], then I think we will have a very good and reliable report."

Sir Francis said the state of the electoral roll presented a significant problem.

"Maybe it is inaccurate in the sense that there are those who should have been registered [who] are not registered, those who might have died are still there," he said.

"That could be the weakness of the roll but the important thing is those who are on the roll should be given the opportunity to cast their vote."

Even though candidates have had little time to prepare, analyst Tess Newton Cain from Devpacific Thinknet told Pacific Beat the campaign had been a largely orderly affair with little controversy.

She said voters were able to find out candidates' policy platforms from many campaign meetings, lots of posters on trucks and buildings plus advertisements in the media.

"It is something that people tend to get quite involved in at all levels, right down to the grass roots," she said.

Ms Newton Cain said even though Facebook played a more significant role in this election, it was still a new but growing platform.

Few women candidates a 'disappointment'

Commentators have expressed concern after just nine women nominated as candidates, down from 17 in 2012.

Ms Newton Cain said there would no doubt be disappointment about the small number of women likely to be elected, especially as some were up against strong fields in their constituencies.

"[But] there are some strong women candidates in particular one that's contesting in the Tanna constituency [Mary Jack Kaviamu] who has been preparing for this for a long time ... and is obviously well-placed," she said.

On October 21, Vanuatu's deputy prime minister Moana Carcasses was sentenced to four years in jail for bribery and corruption, joining 13 other MPs — or half of the country's government — in being sentenced to three or more years in jail.

As one of two former prime ministers jailed in the scandal, Carcasses was found to have made cash payments amounting to 35 million vatu ($452,000) to his fellow parliamentarians last year while in opposition.

Justice Mary Sey ruled that the payments were designed to influence MPs in their capacity as public officials.

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