Vanuatu to elect new prime minister amid crisis over Australia pact

Move comes after top court ruled that pro-Western Prime Minister Ishmael had lost a no-confidence motion in parliament.

Former Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau
Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau lost a no-confidence motion in August [File: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

Vanuatu’s parliament is set to elect a new government after the Pacific Islands nation’s top court upheld a ruling that said Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau had lost a no-confidence motion in August.

The vote for a new prime minister will take place when parliament sits at 5pm local time (06:00 GMT) on Monday, local broadcaster VBTC reported.

Vanuatu was plunged into a political crisis last month when opposition leader Bob Loughman lodged a no-confidence petition against Kalsakau, criticising the pro-Western leader for actions including signing a security pact with Australia.

Loughman, who drew Vanuatu closer to China as the previous prime minister, has said the security pact with Australia compromised the country’s “neutral” status and could jeopardise development assistance from China, its biggest external creditor.

Vanuatu’s largest creditor is China’s EXIM bank, accounting for a third of debt, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The no-confidence motion secured 26 votes, compared with 23 votes against, but the parliament’s speaker ruled it failed to win the absolute majority of 27 necessary to remove a prime minister in the 52-seat parliament.

One seat is vacant and one legislator did not attend the session due to illness.

Supreme Court judge Edwin Goldsbrough ruled late last month that because one seat was vacant the absolute majority should be 26.

Speaker Seoule Simeon appealed the ruling, but the court on Monday dismissed the case, paving the way for the vote for a new prime minister.

VBTC said the opposition had chosen Sato Kilman, a four-time former prime minister and leader of the People’s Progressive Party, as its candidate for the top job.

A police commissioner before entering politics, Kilman was deputy prime minister in Kalsakau’s government until May, when he was removed from cabinet.

There was no immediate comment from Kalsakau.

Kalsakau’s government had sought to widen Vanuatu’s international ties after winning the general elections in November.

In addition to signing the security agreement with Australia in December, Kalsakau’s government on Saturday signed an airport redevelopment deal with Saudi Arabia. His government has also won international attention this year for its successful push to get the United Nations General Assembly to ask the world’s top court to define the obligations of states to combat climate change.

Vanuatu has also been at the centre of a strategic rivalry between China and Western countries in the region.

The United States and its allies are seeking to dissuade Pacific Islands nations from establishing security ties with China after Beijing agreed to a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

China has sent police experts to Vanuatu amid its current political crisis, while the Vanuatu police force said it would work with “all partners” – Australia, New Zealand and China.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies