Who in their wisdom decides to get on a political campaign trail when their closest friend, father of their children and protector of the home, suddenly dies? As difficult a scenario as that may sound, that was the exact predicament Diana Esmon Meltek Willie came face to face with in February 2019. Her beloved husband had died unexpectedly from an undetected illness.
“It was a surprise because when he told me he was sick, I did not think it was that serious,” said a melancholic Diana as she described how she missed his presence for the first time at the Vanua’aku Party (VP) Ambrym congress in 2018. They had both planned to attend because Diana’s nomination was to have been reconfirmed then. He was feeling unwell so had to remain in Malekula.
Nonetheless, soon after the VP congress the pair proceeded to tie the knot in holy matrimony in December. But barely two months later, Euwen Meltek Willie had sadly passed on.
Calling it a huge setback is an understatement. With her closest ally gone, all of a sudden Diana was confronted with tough decisions to make: ‘Should I proceed? How will the supporters react? Will they trust me as a single mum to carry their voices? How about the reactions of the immediate families… will they accept my candidacy? Is that still their desire?’
Supporters even enquired of her ‘baleka’ (father in law) if she should continue on.
In her own custom in Southwest Bay, when a husband dies, usually the family of the widow could come and take her back; and usually, the bride price is returned unless the two have kids, which would mean only half of that may be returned. If she decided to return, it would be up to her to decide whether or not to take their children with her. Diana and Euwen had a daughter of their own of four years old, but cared for several other adopted children. These were not small considerations.
Diana mulled over her political ambitions and all the preparations that had gone on towards the 2020 elections. Everything had seemed so much on track only a few months before. All the necessary groundwork had been done. She’d spent well over Vt2 million out of her own personal savings from working in the private sector and kava farming on community needs.
And from the political awareness conducted right around Malekula, Diana’s team got the sense that their message was sinking in. People were grasping the idea that maybe Diana running might be the solution to the constant bickering that has left much of Malekula, although boasting an undeniable abundance of natural resources, still labouring in the squalor of poverty in the western sense.
It was not that she was breaking any new ground though. In a previous legislature in mid-2000, Heather Rory had become Malekula’s first female MP. But this predecessor’s performance had left so much to be desired and Diana knew all of this would play in the minds of voters. She knew she needed to forge her own identity. And central to her message was her firm views that politics worked much the same way as a home setting. Diana constantly reverts to the Biblical basis for a family unit.
“Just as a woman was created from a man’s ribs, the two must always work together to achieve success in their home.
“I believe it is the same at the community, or even at the national level. We cannot just shut out women. Their voice would bring much better balance,” she said.
But since she had lost her husband, people questioned Diana about whether she would continue to support central Malekula if she were to win. What if she got remarried into another community? “It’s politics. I had anticipated these questions after my husband died. But because we had conducted those awareness sessions, and I had the backing of the party, it was a lot easier,” she said.
“Women are everywhere. They are Director-Generals (in government), pilots, you name them. They can do just about anything that a man does. So why not vote them in too?” she said. Diana herself received an education in New Zealand where she studied towards a diploma in business, but returned halfway through her studies in 2002. Upon her return, she started a 12-year career with Club 21 in Port Vila, initially as cash flow auditor before being posted to the Santo office where she worked her way up to become manager of Club de Sanma.
She then pointed to the reality of today, “Just look at our current parliament. There are no women in there to be the calming influence on the floor of parliament.”
She acknowledged that while her culture may overshadow the role of women at times, she argued women do have a place also in the ‘nasara’ (meeting or sacred place). “Yes, we have chiefs and they have their place; but there is also a place within the nasara where women too can dance.”
Since the days of Sethy Regenvanu — the last VP MP (before breaking ranks with Father Walter Lini to form the National United Party – NUP and then later, People’s Democratic Party — PDP) VP as a party had been on a decline. Its support base had shifted markedly to the south. And with party support dwindling, the attention had hitherto been on Meltek Sato Kilman Livtunvanu – former prime minister and politician over many years. In other words, Central Malekula was a place where for years remnants of VP have had to settle for candidates from either the South, Southwest or Southeast Malekula.
Being third last of seven siblings of current Justice Minister and VP veteran, Hon. Esmon Saimon, (who stood in the South) it wasn’t a surprise that a few whispers of discontent were heard amongst VP renegades within central Malekula.
Diana’s candidacy however, wasn’t just something that popped up overnight. In 2014 the VP congress held at Lycee had endorsed her name when Edward Nipake Natapei was still president. She wasn’t ready for the 2016 snap elections. It was too short notice. The 2020 polls represented her best opportunity. But with her soul mate no longer around to provide that manly support, Diana was prepared to throw the decision back at her VP ‘mandates’ (under VP structure, a voting mandate represented 50 or more people forming a sub-committee). The mandate chairmen came back strongly in no uncertain terms. They told her, “We still want you to run!”
She is grateful for all the support that she received from the party and makes no apologies for contesting under the VP banner. As a woman candidate she believes there is great value in linking up like that. And the reason her candidacy was endorsed at the 2014 congress was because the party, after more than 30 years, came to the realisation that women can have a part. It led to the endorsement of the very first policy agenda to increase women’s participation.
At that stage, the party had been torn apart by political wrangling of the past – fanned by a simmering conflict over leadership that could be traced all the way back to the 1999 Ipota Congress on Erromango when Natapei was first elected ahead of Donald Kalpokas who had been longstanding president since taking over from Fr. Lini in 1991. The contest carried on to subsequent congresses, including Lingarak on Malekula in 2003, and then to the 37th Panita Congress in Tongoa in 2010, where former Tanna stalwart, Harry Iauko masterminded further splits within the party.
Diana was however determined to make her own mark in VP politics.
“I grew up in a family that lived and breathed politics. And as I grew I realised that politics was important to any society. I don’t recall a time when there was only me and my family in the house. We always had people in our home,” she recalls.
Asked her thoughts about having reserved seats for women Diana said: “Women won’t require reserved seats if we have the support of existing parties. To fight a cultural barrier, I don’t think creating reserved seats will win it,” she said.
At 39, Diana’s diminutive frame and soft demeanor belies her inner strength in having to overcome all the odds stacked against her. Looking back she is pretty satisfied that her team’s efforts did much to resurrect the party’s support base in central Malekula, which had diminished markedly over the years. In hindsight, she would have made it through had it not been for the party’s poor strategy in fielding more candidates than the mandates required. Regardless, her 566 votes was something to celebrate, as far as VP’s so called ‘Kambak’ policy is concerned.