Group of islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, part of Melanesia.
Vanuatu is an independent republic within the Commonwealth, with a multiparty political system and a parliamentary executive. The constitution dates from independence in 1980. It provides for a president, who is formal head of state, elected for a five-year term by a two-thirds majority by an electoral college consisting of parliament and the presidents of the country's regional councils. Parliament consists of a single chamber of 52 members, elected by universal suffrage, through a system of proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, for a four-year term. From among their members they elect a prime minister who then appoints and presides over a council of ministers. The national Council of Chiefs (Malvatu Mauri), which is elected by district councils of chiefs, advises the government on cultural and linguistic matters. Politics has tended to divide along language lines, with separate parties oriented to English and French speakers. The country is divided into six provinces.
Originally settled by Melanesians, the islands were reached from Europe in 1606 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandez de Queiras. Called the New Hebrides, they were jointly administered by France and Britain from 1906. Vanuatu escaped Japanese occupation during World War II.
In the 1970s two political parties were formed, the New Hebrides National Party, supported by British interests, and the Union of New Hebrides Communities, supported by France. Discussions began in London about eventual independence, and they resulted in the election of a representative assembly in November 1975. Independence was delayed because of objections by the National Party, which had changed its name to the Vanua'aku Party (VP). A government of national unity was formed in December 1978 with Father Gerard Leymang as chief minister and the VP leader, Father Walter Lini, as his deputy. In 1980 a revolt by French settlers and plantation workers on the island of Espíritu Santo was put down by British, French, and Papua New Guinean troops.
Later in 1980 the New Hebrides became independent, within the Commonwealth, as the Republic of Vanuatu. The first president was George Kalkoa, who adopted the name Sokomanu. The first prime minister was Father Lini, who pursued a left-of-centre, non-aligned foreign policy, which included support for the Kanak separatist movement in New Caledonia. This soured relations with France and provoked mounting opposition within parliament. Despite the VP retaining its majority after the November 1987 general election, this opposition continued, prompting Lini in July 1988 to expel from parliament his rival Barak Sopé. Lini was then dismissed as prime minister and parliament dissolved by President Sokomanu, who appointed his nephew Sope head of an interim government. However, the Supreme Court ruled these actions unconstitutional and security forces loyal to Lini arrested the president, Sope, and opposition leader Maxime Carlot, and reinstated the former prime minister. Fred Timakata, formerly minister of health, was elected president in January 1989.
Opposed to Lini's autocratic leadership, the VP voted in August 1991 to replace him as leader and prime minister with Donald Kalpokas, a former education and foreign minister and fellow founder of the party. Lini initially refused to stand down, but in September 1991 agreed to do so, expecting to return as premier in the forthcoming general election and forming the National United Party (NUP) as a vehicle for fighting it.
Role in Pacific region
Externally, after independence, Vanuatu sought to promote greater cooperation among the states of the Pacific region. As part of this strategy, along with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, it formed, in 1988, the ‘Spearhead Group’, aiming to preserve Melanesian cultural tradition and to campaign for New Caledonia's independence. In 1995 the government controversially banned dissemination of information on the resumption of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. A demonstration against the testing was also banned.
Unstable governments formed
Vanuatu's politics were characterized by political instability in the 1990s, with many small parties contesting and winning seats in parliament, leading to weak coalition governments. The December 1991 general election was followed by the formation of a Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) and NUP coalition government, with Maxime Carlot Korman of the UMP as prime minister and on the understanding that Lini would not be a member of the new government. Jean Marie Leye was elected president in 1994. The UMP-NUP coalition won the November 1995 elections and Serge Vohor of the UMP became prime minister in December 1995. He was toppled in a no-confidence motion in February 1996 and replaced by Carlot Korman, who lasted until September 1996, when he was again replaced by Vohor.
In November 1996 President Leye was briefly kidnapped by the country's defence force after a dispute over pay. More than 150 defence personnel were arrested.
In March 1998, a new coalition government was formed by Prime Minister Donald Kalpokas, of the VP, with a faction of the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) and the John Frum Movement (JFM). This followed the expulsion of deputy prime minister Walter Lini (who later died in February 1999) and his National Unity Party (NUP) from the government, after it had drafted a no-confidence motion. In March 1999, Father John Bernard Bani of the UMP was elected president.
In November 1999, Donald Kalpokas, facing defeat in a no-confidence vote, resigned and was replaced as prime minister by Barak Sopé, a former deputy prime minister from the Melanesian Progressive Party (MPP), who pledged to improve the infrastructure in rural areas. He put together a coalition government which included two former prime ministers from French-speaking parties, Serge Vohor (UMP) as foreign minister, and Maxime Carlot Korman of the Vanuatu Republican Party (VRP) as lands and mineral resources minister. But in April 2001, Sopé was forced to resign after corruption allegations lost him a parliamentary vote of confidence. He was replaced as prime minister by Edward Natapei of the (VP).
Alfred Masing Nalo of the UMP was elected president in April 2004, but the supreme court declared the result invalid because he had a criminal record and he was forced to step down. After fresh elections in July 2004, Kalkot Mataskelekele became president, with Serge Vohor as prime minister from August 2004, heading a UMP-NUP national unity government.
In December 2004, Vohor lost a vote of no confidence, which had been called after he had unilaterally established diplomatic relations with Taiwan. He was replaced as prime minister by Ham Lini, leader of the NUP.
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