But all credit must be accorded to Port Vila MP and Finance Minister Willie Jimmy for entering an early guilty plea yesterday, which no doubt will count for much in his favour in the final analysis. It is a smart decision on his part, although this must have been a shock to the other 16 defendants. Trial is now set for Monday 7 September.
On Thursday last week, Vanuatu Supreme Court judge Mary Sey made a landmark ruling that all 16 parliamentarians facing corruption charges would stand trial both under the Penal Code and the Leadership Code Act. No public figure in Vanuatu has ever been tried under the Leadership Code Act since its enactment in 1998.
Last week’s ruling means an eventual outcome against the accused MPs could prove damaging as far as the leaders’ political careers are concerned; and catastrophic, as far as the life of the present government goes.
At least five of the accused are cabinet ministers: Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil, Finance Minister Willie Jimmy, Public Utilities Minister Tony Nari, Foreign Affairs Minister Serge Vohor, and Lands Minister Paul Telukluk. Among them are the Speaker of Parliament, Marcellino Pipite and Parliamentary Secretaries Silas Yatan and Steven Kalsakau.
Starting next week, Justice Sey will preside over arguably the biggest corruption case ever in Vanuatu. The case concerns 16 parliamentarians – all from the government side – a prominent businessman, eight defence lawyers, and 48 prosecution witnesses.
In 35 years of Vanuatu’s political history, only Ati George Sokomanu, the country’s first president, felt obligated to step down from his leadership duties, when he was reprimanded for a simple road traffic offence some 27 years or so ago. Apart from that, no one else has done it, regardless of allegations levelled against them.
The public in Port Vila are eagerly waiting to see the outcome of the current case, which seems bound to open a new chapter in the country’s political history.
Despite the seriousness of the matter at hand, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Kilman appears unflinching, nor does he appear to be making any moves to consider the alternatives, among them the opposition’s suggestion that his government voluntarily step aside.
Chances were slim from the beginning that Mr Kilman would consider this option. Cultural norms and history suggest that he may not contemplate resigning for fear of losing face and of the political backlash, especially when elections are less than 18 months or so away. Obviously he would want to continue leading as prime minister into next year’s polls.
Many political hopefuls for the 2016 election fear this option because they are not prepared to be on the campaign trails too soon.
For Mr Kilman, the second option seems to make more sense. Not only would he gain politically by keeping his position as prime minister, but he could also save himself from being accused of watching his own government fall from grace. In any case, he certainly has some tough calls to make as events unfold.
With the trial commencing next week, at the very least three likely scenarios may also unfold.
Firstly, as anticipated, the government, through Electoral Commission has set October 15th as the date for Port Vila to find a replacement for former Prime Minister and Vanua’aku Pati leader, Edward Nipake Natapei who died suddenly last month. But it is also possible that more than just the one seat left vacant by the late leader could be up for grabs, which then throws up further questions over the announcement by the Electoral Commission. Could they have waited a little longer, while monitoring the progress of current events in court? Chances are that at the stroke of Justice Sey’s pen, a completely new scenario might also unfold and authorities would then need to revisit the decision whether or not it makes more sense to conduct separate by-elections, or even declare a snap election, in the event of a dissolution of parliament.
However, even for dissolution to take place, Constitutional provisions require that the president make this call, in ‘consultation’ with the office of the prime minister. In such a scenario, a different issue also arises: in the event of the coalition not being able to hold water, could the prime minister still function in the interim and work with the president on dissolving parliament?
In 1989, during the tumultuous years when the Vanua’aku Pati was beginning to disintegrate, this was exactly the point of the government then led by Fr. Walter Lini, during the infamous sedition case involving Barak Sope and Sokomanu as the former president. Sokomanu had unilaterally decided to dissolve parliament for which Fr. Lini took him to task before Solomon Islands Chief Justice Gordon Ward — flown in as a neutral person to help out in the crisis.
Whatever the result, there’s no doubt that current events have the potential to change irreversibly the complexion of the political landscape here in Vanuatu.