National Referendum in six months: Vanuatu PM

Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai announced in Parliament Tuesday that a national referendum is expected to happen within the next six months.  

This announcement followed the unanimous approval of the Constitutional Amendment Bill, with a total of 47 votes in favour. 

PM Salwai revealed that the Electoral Office has advised him that the referendum can be scheduled in the next six months, allowing enough time for preparations, as they are focusing on the Sanma elections. 

During the parliamentary debate on the bill, constructive comments from Members of Parliament (MPs) were acknowledged by the head of the government. He highlighted that this amended bill, along with other related bills passed earlier in the week, including the Political Parties Registration Bill and the Electoral Act, marks significant progress. 

The referendum is a constitutional requirement. The Constitution specifies that any amendment related to the status of Bislama, English and French languages, the electoral system, or the parliamentary system must be supported in a national referendum, following its passage in Parliament under Article 85. 

Several MPs urged citizens to participate in the upcoming referendum, noting that MPs have fulfilled their responsibilities through political will in passing these important bills. 

During the discussions, MP for Port Vila, Ishmael Kalsakau, called on all MPs to contribute their insights to the constitutional amendment bill, given its impact on the constitution. However, only a small number of MPs took part in the discussions. 

The Constitutional Amendment (eighth) Act No. of 2023 made changes to subarticle 4(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu, allowing political parties to be formed freely. This amendment enables Parliament to create laws regulating the registration of political parties. 

The Political Parties Registration Act mandates that all political parties planning to field candidates in parliamentary elections must register in accordance with the procedures and criteria outlined in the bill. 

Recognising the challenges since the 1980s, successive governments identified the fragmentation of political parties and the absence of guidelines for their formation and operation as key contributors to government instability. To address this, a legal and constitutional framework ensuring a robust and sustainable political party system is deemed necessary. The introduction of political party legislation is viewed as essential for achieving such a system. 

The proposed addition of Articles 17A and 17B, aimed at promoting political stability, constitutes a change to Vanuatu’s electoral system. Additionally, the suggested inclusion of subarticle 43(3) to limit motions of no confidence represents a change to the parliamentary system. 

Items 2 and 3 of this bill will only take effect if supported in a national referendum, as required by Article 86 of the Constitution.