Vanuatu’s Kalsakau resigns, calls for delay on constitutional referendum

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Vanuatu's resigned opposition leader Ishmael Kalsakau
Vanuatu's resigned opposition leader Ishmael Kalsakau . . . "I just didn't look over my shoulder to see what was happening behind my back." Image: Lydia Lewis/RNZ Pacific

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

Vanuatu’s former prime minister and opposition MP Ishmael Kalsakau has stepped down — just two days after he confirmed he was the rightful opposition leader.

Kalsakau, MP for Port Vila, confirmed to ABC’s Pacific Beat, and the Vanuatu Daily Post on Thursday that he had resigned along with his deputies.

RNZ Pacific has contacted him for comment.

On Tuesday, while speaking to RNZ Pacific about the referendum on May 29, he opened up about regrets during his time as prime minister.

Kalsakau was elected prime minister in November 2022 after a motion of no confidence was filed against the then Prime Minister Bob Loughman.

There have been a trail of no confidence motions filed since then and two more prime ministers.

“I was so focused on how to change the country, improving Vanuatu’s image. I just didn’t look over my shoulder to see what was happening behind my back.”

‘Learnt his lessons’
He said he has “learnt his lessons” and gone as far as to say “it’s not gonna happen again.

“I will not close my eyes,” he said.

Kalsakau, confirming he was the rightful opposition leader after their were some concerns raised about his appointment recently, said Vanuatu’s upcoming referendum aims to overcome the nation’s persistent political instability.

The government is putting in front of the people two proposed constitutional amendments:

  • 17A: Vacation of Seat by Party Member.

Under this amendment if a MP leaves, or is forced to resign from their political party, then their seat will be declared vacant.

  • 17B: Vacation of Seat by Independent Member.

This amendment would require those MPs elected as independents to choose a political party within three months of being elected, or their seat will be declared vacant.

While it is a different position to what the former prime minister had when he was in government, he said there was a likelihood he or others, who are not satisfied with the government’s action — or inaction over the planned referendum — could go to the Supreme Court.

“They can take this matter to the Supreme Court, to get it judged there as to whether what the government is proposing at the moment is constitutional,” he said.

He said there was a precedent for such a case.

“In 1988, there has been an Appeal Court judgement, which stipulated, in bold terms, that those fundamental rights are so fundamental to the citizen, that not even a state nor any person, not even a nation, can restrict [them],” he said.

Delaying the referendum
When asked if Vanuatu is ready for the referendum, he replied: “Is any country ever ready for a referendum when it traverses the population only two months prior to the date of the vote?”

He is now asking the government to delay the referendum to give time for public consultation on the matter.

“I am hoping that that wisdom prevails at the end of the day,” Kalsakau said.

“If it doesn’t, either way, it can be an option now or it can be an option, after the amendments processed through the referendum.”

Kalsakau insists he is voting “Yes” in the upcoming referendum and his call for postponement is in the public interest.

The government has told local media a delay is not possible as the process is already underway.

However, the former opposition leader disputes that.

“It’s become a political issue now,” he said on Tuesday.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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