In the waning days of the Kilman administration, after the uproar of the bribery trial and the subsequent pardon scandal, Opposition co-Leaders Ham Lini and Joe Natuman called a press conference.
Looking relaxed and confident at the head of the table in the Opposition chambers, the duo announced that the nation was ready for stability. They called on Sato Kilman to step aside and to help form a government of national unity.
In the end, the President exercised his power to dissolve Parliament and call a snap election.
But the Memorandum of Understanding that was announced that day has provided whatever modicum of stability we’ve had since then.
It was the surviving stalwarts of the Walter Lini years, the old guard of both offshoots of Walter Lini’s Vanua’aku Pati, that ushered this nation into the most recent electoral cycle.
Now though, it’s not at all clear whether either Mr Lini or Mr Natuman will return to Parliament in 2020.
Joe Natuman’s decision yesterday to withdraw his candidacy for VP President is emblematic of his approach to politics. He has stood by VP through thick and thin. Party schisms have splintered VP repeatedly over the years, reducing what was once the sole ruling political party to that of a ‘mere’ coalition member.
‘Mere’ in inverted commas because of course VP’s role remains integral to the running of the nation. It has been a decisive coalition member in every government it’s been part of. And it’s been one of the stronger voices in Opposition too.
Joe Natuman’s leadership style was somewhat less feisty than his predecessor, Edward Natapei. It never paid to mistake the man’s mild manner for a weak will. Mr Natapei was never one to back down when challenged. He was at the centre of a number of high-stakes confrontations, both within the party and without.
Mr Natuman, on the other hand, has always taken a more low-key approach to resolving conflict. But no one ever confused his unassuming air for lack of passion or determination. Many people claim that it was his full-throated support for the cause of West Papuan independence that led to his ouster as Prime Minister only weeks after leading the country through the national trauma of cyclone Pam.
Now, it appears the landscape may be shifting back to a shape at once familiar and new. We may be on the eve of a new bipartisan dynamic, split roughly along language lines.
If Prime Minister Charlot Salwai manages to remain as Prime Minister all the way to 2020, he will be the first to do so since the 1990s. He will be only the second francophone Prime Minister to do so ever.
Mr Salwai’s ascendancy marks the high point of a decade-long effort on his part to reunite the francophone political faction. Following his split with mercurial UMP leader Serge Vohor, he embarked on a slow and steady campaign to rally French-speaking politicians under the banner of the Reunification Movement for Change.
That work is nearly complete, with only a few hold-outs remaining.
Efforts to reunite the Anglophone bloc were led—and contested—by VP and NUP, both of which were founded by Walter Lini. They maintained a cordial distance from one another, but were seldom found on opposites sides of the Parliamentary chamber. Nonetheless, obstacles to reunification into a single monolithic party have proven insurmountable.
The latest politician to vocally champion this cause has been Johnny Koanapo, who has campaigned tirelessly across the country with his appeal to ex-VPers to ‘come home’.
Right now, more MPs seem to be finding a home outside the part than in it. VP remains a considerable force, and it’s almost impossible to imagine that changing, no matter what the next election brings. It’s conceivable, though, that another alignment might leave it as a supporting player in future governments, or even assisting with someone else’s unification plan.
Just as Charlot Salwai had to reinvent the UMP in order to save it, it may be that VP’s vision for the future of the nation may serve in support of other parties’ efforts.
Following his sentencing for obstruction of justice, Joe Natuman emerged from the court to find nearly a hundred die-hard supporters crowding the courtyard. They flocked to him, their faces shining with sincere admiration. His message to them, however, was not about himself, but about the party.
He would do what was good for the party, he said, to applause.
His decision yesterday not to contest the second round of the party presidential election was also taken in the interest of party unity. And because of that decision, VP has an uncontested leadership for the first time in a long time.
No one doubts his electability in the eyes of the people of Tanna. No one doubts that the party would have him as a candidate if he chose to stand. It’s quite likely that he’d love to run again.
But looming over all of this is a single line of the Leadership Code that states unequivocally that persons guilty of obstructing justice are in breach of the Code. It’s not just possible; it’s likely that Mr Natuman’s legal travails may not be over.
In his absence, it would be up to an entirely new generation of politicians to determine the fate of the so-called southern bloc, and quite possibly of the entire Anglophone political demographic.