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Little Vanuatu is embroiled in one of the world's oddest political scandals

Iririki Island, a resort island in Vanuatu.
Iririki Island, a resort island in Vanuatu.
(Phillip Capper)

One of the world's tiniest countries is currently embroiled in one of its biggest scandals.

Fourteen members of the parliament in Vanuatu, a small island nation located a little northeast of Australia, were convicted last Friday for a scheme in which legislators accepted cash bribes in exchange for voting out their prime minister. The speaker of Vanuatu's parliament, one of the convicted MPs, then pardoned himself and the other 13 — which he could only do because the president was out of the country. Now Vanuatu is in the middle of a constitutional crisis.

It's a weird, weird situation. What follows is a guide to some questions you might have about the scandal — and what it means for Vanuatu.

What is Vanuatu?

Vanuatu is the red-circled bit.
(TUBS)

With respect to this nation and its citizens, many readers may not be familiar. Its population is 252,000, a little less than Lincoln, Nebraska's, spread out over roughly 80 little islands in the Pacific. Its main industries are agriculture and tourism.

Vanuatu has been a fairly stable democracy since it became independent in 1980. Freedom House, an NGO that measures the quality of democracy around the world, gives Vanuatu high marks for protecting rights to free speech and political participation.

That said, Vanuatu does have problems. Before independence, the country was jointly controlled by the UK and France. This fairly unique colonial arrangement had the effect of splitting the country on linguistic lines, with English speakers on one side of its political divides and French speakers on another. This is one reason the country's parliamentary majorities have a tendency to fall apart.

"Politicians frequently switch affiliations, and political loyalties are heavily driven by linguistic and tribal identity," Freedom House explains. "No-confidence votes have forced several changes of government in recent years, including in 2014, and such frequent changes in government have had an adverse effect on the stability of governance."

What is the Vanuatu political scandal?

moana carcasses

Moana Carcasses (R) with Australians after Australia-Vanuatu economic talks, presumably not involving bribery. (Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

One of these no-confidence votes is at the heart of the current scandal.

Last year, Moana Carcasses, a member of parliament who was leading the political opposition at the time, hatched a scheme. He would bribe a number of legislators to support a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Joe Natuman, which would force Natuman out of office and install a new prime minister.

Natuman caught wind of the scheme. In November 2014, he passed a motion in parliament to suspend Carcasses and the legislators he allegedly bribed. A complaint was also filed with the police, who investigated whether criminal charges could be brought against Carcasses and the others.

Carcasses sued to be reinstated in parliament — and won. In June of 2015, he and his allies pushed through a no-confidence vote against Natuman. Natuman was ousted, and replaced by current Prime Minister Sato Kilman; Carcasses became deputy prime minister. Marcellino Pipite, who is one of the legislators to have accepted the bribe, became parliament speaker.

The criminal investigation, however, didn't go away — and eventually yielded formal charges. On October 9, Carcasses, Pipite, and 12 other legislators were convicted of bribery (one other MP, Robert Bohn, was acquitted).

But that was just the first half of the scandal. The second half was the self-pardon.

And one of the convicted legislators then pardoned himself and his accomplices?

Vanuatu's president, Baldwin Lonsdale, picked a really bad time to be out of town.
(Jeremy Piper/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes. This is an actual thing he can do, and he in fact appears to have done it.

Vanuatu has both a prime minister, who serves as head of government, and a president, who serves as head of state. The president, currently Baldwin Lonsdale, has extensive constitutional powers to pardon convicted criminals — he is rather like the American president in that respect.

President Lonsdale was visiting Samoa when the convictions came down. Under ni-Vanuatu law, the speaker of the parliament temporarily assumes the presidency when the president is out of the country. The current speaker, Pipite, happened to be one of the 14 legislators convicted in the bribery scandal.

How convenient.

Pipite used his temporary powers to pardon himself, Carcasses, and their other 12 co-conspirators. He claimed he was doing this to head off instability. But according to the Australian Broadcasting Company, "when pressed on how the bribery convictions could spark instability, Mr. Pipite failed to answer."

"It makes the rule of law look like it's totally absent from Vanuatu," Mark Hodge, a law professor at Auckland University, told Radio New Zealand on Tuesday. It's not great, no.

So what happens now?

Current ni-Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman (C).
(Ness Kerton/AFP/Getty Images)

It's possible that Pipite, Carcasses, and company simply get away with it.

"I have never heard of the head of state or governor general deciding that he or she wants to try to rescind, reverse, revoke, [or] declare null and void the actions of his temporary administrator, the person acting in his shoes," Hodge said in his comments to Radio New Zealand. "I don't know that that's ever happened in a modern constitution before."

That would mean a bunch of people convicted of bribing their way into power would have successfully held onto their ill-gotten gains — which can't be good for the ni-Vanuatu government's stability.

But President Lonsdale may still have options. According to Hodge, ni-Vanuatu law may "implicitly" grant the president the power to reverse the pardon. This seems especially plausible because Pipite's pardon technically happened before the trial was finished. While he and the other 13 had been convicted, they had not yet been sentenced. Vanuatu's constitution gives the president the power to "pardon, commute, or reduce a sentence" — but not vacate the conviction itself.

But even if Lonsdale manages to reverse Pipite's pardon, Vanuatu will face real challenges. If the 14 legislators are formally sentenced, they'll be required to vacate their positions in parliament. Their absence would leave the current prime minister, Kilman, without a governing majority in parliament. That means either a new coalition or new elections.

No matter what happens, then, Vanuatu is in for another round of political instability.