With only weeks to go before Parliament sits, the first hard evidence of a serious threat to the stability of the Charlot Salwai-led coalition has come to light.
The Daily Post is in possession of the contents of a group chat on Facebook Messenger implicating eight MPs, Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers in a plan to remove the Leaders Party of Vanuatu from the ruling coalition.
The chat, which features frequent boisterous talk, swearing and joking insults, involved members of the Prime Minister’s own Reunification Movement for Change party, Minister Ralph Regenvanu’s Graon mo Jastis party, as well as a senior member of the Vanua’aku Pati and members of the UMP, one of whom organised and administered the group chat.
None of them seem to acting with the knowledge or consent of their respective leaders.
Over a period of several weeks starting on October 1, the members began complaining about the growing power and influence of the Leaders Party.
The group chat’s administrator summed it up, writing, “YUMI TIRRRRREEEEDDD”.
The discontent arose on the heels of Jimmy Nipo’s victory in the Tanna bye-election to replace ex-VP leader Joe Natuman. Mr Natuman was removed by the Speaker following his conviction for obstruction of justice.
The LPV victory appears to have caused dismay among the ranks of southern MPs, many of whom were involved in or aware of the chat.
GJP declined to run a candidate in the bye-election, in deference to their VP coalition partners. LPV, on the other hand, stood Jimmy Nipo as their candidate, and won.
One Parliamentary Secretary shared a story of a frog in a boiling saucepan who doesn’t realised he’s being boiled alive until it’s too late to jump out. He seemed to be suggesting that if the MPs waited too long to move, the Leaders Party would become too strong to resist.
The story is widely shared across social media, but like so much else we see on Facebook, it’s false. A frog will jump out of hot water the moment it become uncomfortable, just like any other creature.
The chat group members, on the other hand, seemed to find it difficult to find the right circumstances to make their move.
Despite numerous discussions and reports of meetings, some allegedly with the Prime Minister himself, nothing seems to have happened… yet.
Members of the group discussed numerous topics, many of them related to the ability of LPV Ministers Jotham Napat and Matai Seremaiah to mobilise large numbers of people to their gatherings, and to deliver big ticket projects to their constituents. Much of the plotting seems to have been predicated on removing Jotham Napat as Minister of Infrastructure and Public Utilities.
When loans and grants are included, this ministry has the largest budget by a significant margin, totalling over VT10 billion in 2018, before the supplementary budget is considered. The two next largest ministries are Education with nearly VT7.5 billion budgeted, and Finance with about VT7.2 billion. The remaining ministries lag far behind. Internal Affairs, for example, has a budget of slightly over VT2.1 billion.
Some bald allegations were made of unethical behaviour, but no evidence was provided to support these assertions.
The Daily Post has learned that the LPV leadership is aware of the contents of the chats. One report shared briefly on social media stated that Jotham Napat was referring some of the statements for legal advice. Other evidence, however, suggests that he will seek a more conciliatory resolution if one is available.
Some participants complained about the size of the bye-election victory procession that drove from the airport to the celebration site. An MP on Tanna told the others he’d counted 58 vehicles, each of them full to capacity.
“A number like that reveals the power that [Jotham Napat] is exposing to us day by day,” replied one, writing in French.
Among most vocal complainers were MPs without portfolios. Their repeated statements of being ‘tired’ seemed to relate to their inability to dispense public funds and leverage the perks of ministerial office.
While some MPs and one Minister were seen to be quite active in rounding up support and setting up the circumstances for an internal putsch, other members of the chat were silent or non-committal. One Minister was made a member of the group, but there’s no evidence he participated in the chat, although he is said by others to have attended at least one meeting between them and the Prime Minister.
This chat log is the first firm evidence of instability within the coalition. Some political insiders have suggested that the timing is not coincidental. With Parliament due to sit imminently, a reshuffle has to take place immediately if the PM wants to consolidate his numbers in time to pass the 2019 budget.
One surprising component: Photographs were shared that were apparently taken inside a Council of Ministers meeting. No confidential information is disclosed in the photographs, but it is noteworthy to know that people inside the CoM meeting were sending images from it in real time.
Prime Minister Charlot Salwai has easily defeated all the motions of no confidence he's faced, but if either this contingent or the members of the Leaders Party were to move to Opposition, it could have a significant effect on the stability of his government.
The Suicide Squad monicker may prove ironic if the participants’ plans come unstuck or somehow rebound against them. The movie the name comes from tells the story of a group of small-time villains considered disposable by those in power, who are armed and sent on what is believed to be a suicide mission.