1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 1


Presidential elections were held in March 1999, but no candidate obtained the two-thirds majority necessary to form a government. The government and opposition negotiated and agreed on a candidate for a second poll on March 24, at which Donald Kalpokas was chosen prime minister. By mid-October, Prime Minister Kalpokas' government was threatened by a no-confidence vote. In late October, the Supreme Court dismissed an attempt by the Union of Moderate Parties to suspend 17 party members, including Deputy Prime Minister Willie Jimi, who had refused to resign from the coalition government. On November 25, Barak Tame Sope of the Melanesian Progressive Party replaced Kalpokas by winning 28 votes in the 52-seat parliament. The new government promised to reduce the power of department heads, to review the recruitment of foreign advisers, and to reconsider the value-added tax (VAT).

In April, Ombudsman Marie Noelle Ferrieux Patterson, who has waged many political battles against corruption and abuse of power, called for the dismissal of the minister of new business, Paul Telukluk, for allocating 15 land titles to himself and his extended family. When her five-year term expired and the government replaced her with Hannington Alatoa, Patterson complained that the government's decision was racist and alleged that Alatoa is not fully qualified for the post. In September, Alatoa had to answer charges of misappropriation of $800 in government funds for a development loan and was acquitted in December.

A trial of 18 paramilitaries accused of staging a coup attempt in October 1996 opened in June 1999. They faced charges of holding officers and the state president captive during the attempted coup. The group said that they only wanted government payments for outstanding allowances. Vanuatu's first prime minister, Father Walter Lini, passed away following illness.

Located in the southwestern Pacific, this predominantly Melanesian archipelago, formerly the New Hebrides, was an Anglo-French condominium until it became independent in 1980. The condominium agreement divided the islands into English- and French-speaking communities, creating rifts that continue today. In 1999, Prime Minister Donald Kalpokas called on all government ministries to use both English and French, the country's two official languages, in their work. In addition, the Teacher's Union endorsed a World Bank proposal to use vernacular teaching in the first two years of school as a way to promote multilingualism.

The first post-independence government, led by Prime Minister Father Walter Lini's anglophone Vanua'aku Pati (VP) party, largely excluded francophones from key posts. In 1991, a divided VP ousted prime minister Lini, who left to form the National United Party (NUP). This split the anglophone vote and allowed the francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) to win a plurality in the December 1991 elections and form a government under Maxime Carlot.

At national legislative elections on November 30, 1995, a four-party opposition coalition headed by VP leader Donald Kalpokas won a plurality with 20 seats. The UMP, itself now divided, formed a coalition government with the NUP headed by Serge Vohor, the new UMP leader. In February 1996, Carlot formed a government that fell after seven months in the wake of a report by Ombudsman Patterson, implicating Carlot in a banking scandal. In May 1997, Vohor reunited the UMP and formed the fourth government since the 1995 elections. On November 27, President Jean Marie Leye dissolved parliament, citing continued instability and corruption allegations, and called for elections in March 1998, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in January 1998.

Throughout 1998, Ombudsman Patterson exposed alleged corruption and mismanagement by senior government officials, including reports that several high-ranking politicians had been involved in illegally selling passports to foreign nationals. Patterson issued a report in January charging the Vanuatu National Provident Fund, a national retirement scheme for workers, had improperly issued loans to leading politicians. The disclosure sparked protests on January 12 at the fund's headquarters in the capital, Port Vila, as investors tried to withdraw their savings, and quickly escalated into widespread rioting and looting. President Leye declared a nationwide two-week state of emergency, during which time the police questioned and arrested more than 500 people in connection with the riots.

The March 1998 parliamentary elections produced no clear majority. The VP and NUP formed a coalition government, and parliament elected VP's Kalpokas prime minister. The coalition lasted only seven months. Kalpokas ousted the NUP in October 1998, and a new coalition was formed with the opposition UMP. In December, the opposition's attempt to bring a no-confidence motion against Kalpokas was defeated.

As part of its Comprehensive Reform Program, which includes an overhaul of state administration and increased private sector development, the government began implementing plans to reduce the country's public service sector by about ten percent and enacted a strict leadership code of conduct. It also adopted legislation to establish a special unit to recover and manage more than $25 million in debts for the Vanuatu National Provident Fund, the Development Bank of Vanuatu, and the National Bank of Vanuatu, which have been plagued by bad loans and political interference. The January 1998 riots and public loss of confidence forced the government to make large payments to members of these three financial institutions, bringing the country to near bankruptcy early in the year.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Vanuatu can change their government democratically. The constitution vests executive power in a prime minister. The unicameral, 52-member parliament is directly elected for a four-year term. A largely ceremonial president is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of the 49 members of parliament and the six provincial council presidents. Although the 1998 national elections were regarded as generally free and fair, there were allegations of voting irregularities. In October, the Supreme Court ruled that a by-election for one seat would be held in January 1999 after a candidate's campaign workers were found breached election laws by campaigning inside a polling station.

The government owns most of the country's media, including a television station serving the capital, two radio stations, and the Vanuatu Weekly newspaper. The smaller private press consists of a growing independent newspaper and political party newsletters. In November 1998, state-owned Television Blong Vanuatu announced that it would screen more locally produced program materials. In April 1999, the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation decided to allow pay television to commence service.

There were some setbacks in press freedom in 1998 although media coverage of politically sensitive issues has improved in recent years. In early 1998, Ombudsman Patterson alleged that the state-owned Radio Vanuatu's Bislama-language service, which is the main source of news outside the country's capital, was not broadcasting her findings of misconduct by government officials; the station resumed airing Patterson's remarks shortly thereafter. There were also allegations that former cabinet minister and parliament member Willie Jimmy had threatened Radio Vanuatu journalists.

Religious freedom is respected in this predominantly Christian country. Freedom of assembly and association is upheld. There are five active, independent trade unions operating under the umbrella of the Vanuatu Council of Trade Unions although more than 80 percent of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture and fishing. Unions can exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively.

Although the judicial system is generally independent, the government has, at times, attempted to pressure the largely expatriate judiciary in politically sensitive cases. After the arrest of some 500 suspected riots in January 1998, there were credible reports that police assaulted or otherwise poorly treated prisoners. In 1999, the Ombudsman's Office said that jails fail to meet the minimum international standards and the constitutional rights of inmates are often violated.

The country's small ethnic-minority communities are discriminated in land ownership. Women have limited opportunities in education and politics. In 1999, Prime Minister Kalpokas urged employers to hire more women.

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