If Vanuatu’s track record is anything to go by, the most coveted position in politics – being the head of government or Prime Minister is not necessarily as safe as one would think.
This week, the Vanuatu Court handed down the sentencing judgment for – Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas Bule-Saribo, soon to be former MP , Former Prime Minister, former Minister for Trade and Industries, former Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, former Minister for Education, former Minister for Finance and Economic Management , and former Minister of Internal Affairs. He has also served as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Leader of the Opposition Whip, and Deputy Opposition Leader.
Charlot Salwai is a francophone and heads the Reunification Movement for Change political party (RMC) which he started with other Francophone political figures and has 5 MPs in the current Parliament Opposition plus another three who have defected to the current ruling coalition led by the Vanuaaku Party(VP) Prime Minister Bob Loughman Weibur.
RMC broke away from the main Francophone political group – the Union of Moderate Parties(UMP) after internal squabbles.
He joins an exclusive club of former Prime Ministers who have been convicted for some things that they did during their terms as Prime Minister. The club includes former Prime Minister – Barak Sope (former VP and then Melanesian Progressive Party(MPP)), former Prime Minister – Maxime Carlot Korman (UMP and then Natatok Party), former Prime Minister – Serge Vohor (UMP), former Prime Minister – Moana Carcasses Kalosil (Green Confederation(GC)) and former Prime Minister – Joe Natuman (VP).
Charlot Salwai was initially cleared of bribery and corruption charges with three other co-defendants over his efforts to maintain stability in his government by the offer of appointment of MPs as Parliamentary Secretaries.
In an unusual turn of events, the Judge dismissed the bribery and corruption charges after hearing only the Prosecution witnesses and evidence suggesting the charges were not proven by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt. The Judge did not take the time to hear the defendants, their statements and cross examinations evidences, just basing his decision on the prosecution evidence.
Charlot Salwai’s conviction and sentencing was in relation to perjury charges when he declared in his statement that the Parliamentary Secretary positions had been approved by Council of Ministers or Cabinet which was refuted by witnesses for the Prosecution who were former Ministers in his Cabinet.
It is a fact that Parliamentary Secretaries had been appointed in the previous administrations with support staff and offices however the number of appointments was not to the extent that it directly affected and shifted the balance of power in Parliament to the government’s side.
The National Parliament did pass amendments to provide a legal framework for the appointment of Parliamentary Secretaries however when these amendments were submitted to the President of the Republic for signing, His Excellency Obed Moses Tallis referred the amendments to the Courts and the amendments were declared unconstitutional.
The Vanuatu Supreme Court in Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek – current Chief Justice of Vanuatu, declared the amendments to be unconstitutional as they needed to go before a national referendum as per Article 86 of the National Constitution before being submitted to Parliament as the amendments were inconsistent with Article 42 of the National Constitution because the Court ruled that the Bill as submitted purports to change the structure of the parliamentary system by changing the makeup of the executive which is an integral component of the parliamentary system.
Parliamentary Secretaries are paid extra salaries and provided with offices, staff and vehicles akin to the status of junior Ministers.
The declaration of unconstitutionality provided the basis for the former Leader of Opposition – Hon. Ishmael Kalsakau (UMP) and currently Vanuatu’s Deputy Prime Minister to initiate investigations and the court actions which ultimately resulted in Charlot Salwai being convicted of perjury.
Honorable Ishmael Kalsakau was before going into Parliament, the longest serving Attorney General in Vanuatu and is well versed on the laws of land having been the Government’s chief legal advisor for more than 10 years.
Former Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas received a suspended sentence of 2 years and 3 months out of a potential maximum sentence of 4 years having been reduced because of the judge’s consideration of Salwai’s circumstances, lack of criminal record and other factors.
When an MP is convicted and sentenced for a term of not less than 2 years during his term as an MP, under the Vacation of Seats Act he immediately loses his seat in the National Parliament.
With the completion of the term of his conviction sentence, Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas does have the opportunity to come back into politics. He is a traditional chief of his island of Central Pentecost and his people and his supporters who are mainly francophone and Catholic have stood by him thru thick and thin.
It is interesting to note that in nearly all the legal cases which have resulted in the convictions of the former Prime Ministers, the prosecutors have been foreigners and the cases have been heard and the judgments have been delivered by foreign judges.
The likely reasons for this are that as Vanuatu is a small country and its capital – Port Vila is community where anyone of significance is personally known to everyone else, local judges probably fear their decisions being biased by the associations so such cases that are lodged personally against politicians are usually heard by what are seen as independent foreign judges working in the court system in Vanuatu.
What is a fact of Vanuatu’s 40 years history is that such events combined with personal political egos and differences have continued to aggravate and contribute to the political divisions that have resulted in the continued growth of a fragmented political establishment, establishment of more small parties and the continuation of coalition governments that have existed since the late eighties and early nineties. After 40 years of independence the situation does not look like it will change.