Is diversity of political representation possible in Vanuatu?

By Anna Naupa and Nick Howlett

Part 2 of a 3-part series on Vanuatu’s Electoral Integrity
Vanuatu’s women deserve better political representation. Source: Vanuatu Department of Women’s Affairs

Vanuatu’s women deserve better political representation. Photo: Vanuatu Department of Women’s Affairs


< Read Part 1: ‘Ghostbusters: it’s time to deal with Vanuatu’s phantom voters’

Read Part 3: ‘Is dual citizenship a threat to Vanuatu? No, but unregulated political financing is’ >
 

VANUATU’S NATIONAL ELECTIONS give citizens the opportunity to shape the nation’s future through their choice of political representation. Electoral boundaries and the total number of constituencies have shifted over the years in response to demographic changes. A recent media report suggested that electorates will be again be modified sometime before 2020. Today, there are 52 seats in the national parliament, with MPs drawn from most of Vanuatu’s different islands.

However, this seeming diversity masks the lack of representation of different demographic groupings within Parliament: women, young people, people with disability, religious minorities and other groups that are not part of the mostly male political elite are effectively excluded. The omission of a significant proportion of the population disadvantages Vanuatu’s national development, because their contributions and needs are left out of the political debate.

The final list of political candidates in the upcoming 2016 national election is yet to be announced, but already rumours are circulating that there will be fewer women candidates contesting this election than ever before – an informal count of candidate lists published to date suggests only 11 women candidates.

This is a worrying trend. Despite dedicated efforts over the years by the Vanuatu Department of Women’s Affairs and women’s groups, the active political participation of women remains an unfulfilled hope.

Ironically, Vanuatu’s electoral system – the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system – was selected at independence in 1980 because it was believed that it would give minority groups an equal chance at being elected to office, given Vanuatu’s multicultural and multilingual demography. In this system, voters cast a single vote, and a simple majority determines the winner for a particular seat. Success is at the individual candidate level, regardless of political party affiliation, and as a result, politics in Vanuatu tends to be very localized.

On the one hand, Vanuatu’s SNTV system promotes diversity of political representation. This system is very supportive of independent candidates, who have been increasingly successful over the previous election cycles, comprising 19% of all candidates in the 2012 general election.

On the other hand, this ‘diversity’ has arguably been at the expense of political stability; fragmentation of political parties has been a strong feature of Vanuatu politics since the late 1980s; multiple candidates from the same party are often fielded in the same constituency.

It could also be argued that this encouragement of diversity helps women, as a politically under-represented group, get a foot in the political door. However, women face particular difficulties in running for office; a common view in society is that political office should be a male domain. A 2010 Vanuatu Government study of the gender profile of political parties revealed that few parties have a formal gender strategy, and women are only infrequently fielded as candidates. Since 1980, just five women have been elected to parliament.

The number of votes cast for women candidates in the last three national elections (2004, 2008 and 2012) shows that in some particularly female-friendly electorates (Banks/Torres, Epi, Port Vila, Malakula and Tongoa), women have competed strongly against male candidates at a local level (see table). However, at the national level, the number of votes for female candidates has remained small. In 2012, just 1.97% of all votes cast were for female candidates.

Table 1. Votes Cast for Female Candidates in Vanuatu General Elections 2004–2012

Description

2004

2008

2012

% of total votes cast for female candidates all constituencies

1.87%

3.32%

1.97%

Constituencies fielding female candidates

4

10

11

Total female candidates

9

17

17

Consistently Female-Friendly Constituencies 2004 – 2012
Banks/Torres

1.3%

1.9%

4.06%

Epi

32.11%

34.21%

21.22%

Port Vila

6.64%

3.58%

1.78%

Malakula

n/a

6.13%*

0.2%

Tongoa

n/a

32.76%

5.39%

Note: only Epi successfully elected women in 2004. However, an electoral dispute following the 2008 elections led to a by-election where the female incumbent lost her seat. In 2008, a female candidate was elected in Malakula, but she lost her seat in 2012.

* Combined votes of both female candidates contesting in Malakula.

The localization of politics facilitated by the SNTV system is a major obstacle to aspiring female politicians contesting Vanuatu’s national elections. The Vanuatu Government has explored several ways to address this through temporary special measures and reserved seats for women at the local government level. For example, the 2014 Port Vila Municipal Elections included 7 reserved seats for women.

A national effort is required to address this lack of representation. Unless we start to see women and other more socially diverse political representatives in our Parliament, then perhaps the SNTV system isn’t capable of delivering the diversity of representation for which it was chosen.


Anna Naupa conducted research into Vanuatu’s electoral integrity while studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2013-14. Her research paper can be read here.

Nick Howlett is a Vanuatu communications professional currently completing an MA in Communications at Griffith University, Australia.

Opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the authors and do not express the views or opinions of any organization or imply endorsement of any political party or position.


One Comment on “Is diversity of political representation possible in Vanuatu?”

  1. Sue Farran says:

    Perhaps a more pertinent question to raise would be why are so many people standing for election? Of course it is a job with a salary so that is one reason, but more than that it is a job with perks and the temptation of those perks has been made crystal clear in recent months. The constituencies of those standing to be elected (apart perhaps from the urban areas) are constituencies of wantoks/family/clan/kin. Many of the political parties barely have a manifesto or party policy. As in most political systems promises are made at elections time that benefits will flow back to constituents in return for votes and successful outcomes. One of the arguments made in the bribery case was that MPs didn’t have enough funds to make payments or achieve promises made to constituents. Until women are seen as distributors of largesse or sources of ‘cargo’€™ and have equal respect and power among their own clan/family/kin as men they are not going to succeed in politics –€“ at least not in Vanuatu, whatever aid programmes and awareness raising takes place. Strengthening women’€™s economic power and ensuring that they are promoted to senior levels in public and private sectors would do a lot more than simply advocating voting for women. Look at the backgrounds of some of those standing – advantages of education, travel, work experience etc. Moreover any women who do stand have got to be prepared for much more scrutiny of their personal lives than men (true not only of Vanuatu but elsewhere where women participate in politics). In fact most women who are elected in the Pacific (and there are very few of them) have strong political families standing behind them, which probably helps not only in networking and political clout, but also in providing a cloak of respect/dignity and status (which may or may not be deserved but is useful for the slings and arrows of a cruel political media circus).

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