Throughout dominance by political parties within many Western societies.

Throughout the Oceanic sub-region of Melanesia political
instability is not only prominent, it is the societal norm, this being
especially true for the states of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon
Islands. By exploring the bases of the fluid party structures and outlining the
effects these fissiparous parties have on political governance we are able to
not only contextualize political parties within these three states but also see
the need for reform within the party systems. By utilizing a synopsis of
international approaches to political party strengthening and political party
engineering we are able to make preliminary suggestions regarding how these
elements can be synthesized to form the basis of engineering, capacity
building, and strengthening strategies for parties within Papua New Guinea,
Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. Thereby explaining how party strengthening in
these three states as well as all of Melanesia can only work to strengthen the
parliamentary government systems.

Theories of Political Party Operation

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Political parties are a fundamental aspect in the operation
of functioning governments, especially democratic regimes, because they play an
important role in good governance. A strong, representative, and responsive
political party is able to legitimize the government of a society because of
the sense of vertical accountability they feel from the electorates, party
members, and affiliated organizations (Okole). In addition to this, political
parties are what allows for a peaceful transition between leaders within a
highly competitive political system.

Growth in mass media and civil society has led to the
erosion of dominance by political parties within many Western societies.
Despite this, political parties have always remained the primary vehicle for
political action within the west, as well as having major influence on the
development of public policy. Political parties are what allows for “diverse
identities, interests, preferences, and passions” to be fashioned into laws,
policies, appropriations, and coalitions (Loewenberg). Put in simpler terms,
political parties serve as the vehicles for aggregation of societal interests
and the transition of these interests to public policies.

Melanesian Political Parties in Context

The apparent weakness of political parties within Melanesia
is an issue of increasing prominence. Scott Mainwaring and Timothy Scully of
Stanford University have described party organizations in Melanesia as “weak”
because of the “high electoral volatility,” which has led to “party roots in
societies being weak and individual personalities dominating the parties and
campaigns” (Mainwaring et al). The traditional bases of party development,
programmatic and ideological cleavages, have been second to ethnic, regional,
religious, and linguistic factors when shaping the political competition. While
there are examples of long-standing political parties within Melanesia, such as
the Vanua’aku Pati in Vanuatu and the Pangu Pati in Papua New Guinea, the
majority of parties are short-lived. Mainwaring and Scully believe this is
because most parties are “lacking a mass base, organizational structure,
coherent ideology and firm party discipline” (Mainwaring et al). A majority of
the political parties in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands
tend to exist mainly within the legislature and are only active outside of it
during election season. John Ballard believes this is because within Melanesia,
“parties often act like parliamentary associations, with members joining a
party once they have been elected to parliament. Rather than parties driving
the pre-selection of candidates, parties are forced to choose popular local
candidates for their survival” (Ballard). Because political parties in
Melanesia do not tend to espouse clear ideological positions and rather have a
very general pro-development message, they have evolved into electoral and
strategic tools discarded at any convenience (Ballard). One example of this can
be found within the early successes of the Pangu Pati within Papua New Guinea.
During the formative years of the political party, the leaders of Pangu Pati
gave way to fragmentation after the resolution of the independence issue within
Papua New Guinea in 1975. According to Ron May, there was very little by way of
policy differentiation between the various Papua New Guinea political parties.
May similarly found that in Vanuatu the polarization between nationalist and
centralist Anglophone and federalist, primarily Francophone parties began to
erode in the late 1980s, as leadership challenges within the Vanua’aku Pati
provoked major factional splits (May).

Within Melanesia today political parties are arbitrary and
institutionally weak. It is often found that candidates rely solely on their
personal qualities and their connection to constituents, rather than
party-based platforms. The highly personalized nature of politics throughout
Melanesia has led to parties being prone to fragmentation as they organize
around personalities rather than political cleavages. According to Henry Okole,
Bernard Narokobi and Quinton Clements, political parties in Melanesia:

“have consistently
failed to be permanent and genuine linkages between the government and the
people. Like the state machinery that is easily accessed by political actors to
serve their ends, most political parties in the country are the extra arms of
their creators” (Okole et al).

The primary reason for this is
members of Parliament feels little to no obligation or allegiance to the
political party he or she stood with during the campaign period. In addition to
this, there are no constitutional regulations on switching party allegiances
while serving in parliament.

demands and needs are often left with no response in centralized parties, making
many grassroot electors disinterested in organized politics. For example, in
Vanuatu “electoral results indicate a shift away from the major parties to
minor parties and independents, which in turn implies the subordination of
national concerns (e.g. good governance) to intensely local ones (local
development, responsive local representation, access to development funds)” (Electoral
Commission). This shift is only exemplified by the increase in support for the
locally credible independent candidates, who typically run on local development
platforms. Whereas at independence in 1980 Vanuatu parliament was polarized
between the majority Vanua’aku Pati, which commanded 60% of seats, and the
Union of Moderate Parties, which held the remainder, independents or minor parties
now hold 50% or 26 seats in Vanuatu’s 52-seat parliament (Electoral Commission).

slim electoral margins found within Melanesia in combination with the high
turnover of incumbents during elections (more than 50% are not returned during
each election) has led to many political parties in Melanesia to be attuned to
the need for rewarding direct electors. This drives the pursuit of personal
wealth as being imperative for political survival in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu,
and the Solomon Islands. However, the high turnover for political parties in
these states suggests fulfilling election promises is difficult because of the
demands placed on parties by intense factional political systems surrounding
election to Parliament and the formation of governments. 

The Effects of Fragmented Parties on
Government and Opposition in Melanesia

The main effect of the fluidity of political parties within
Melanesia is the instability of regimes. In present day society coalitions
within Melanesia are formed by several small parties, which then form the
government. These coalitions tend to survive very little time once in office.  For example, since the Solomon Islands were
granted independence in 1978 governments have lasted no longer than two years
before transition. During Vanuatu’s period of protracted instability between
1995 and 1997, three votes of no confidence led to government changes and eight
major coalition changes. Consequently, throughout Melanesia policy making has
always been second to political survival and alliance forming.

Within Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands
governments have been characterized by flimsy coalitions that lack ideological
coherence and unified primarily by the pragmatic considerations of attaining
access to state resources. Throughout these three states, coalitions have
proven to be precarious, being beleaguered by competition over ministerial
posts. Factions within the government are centered around one single
individual, who is linked to the other party members by patronage and complex
systems of reciprocity. Coalition fidelity is often shown little to no respect
by the coalition member parties. Michael Morgan argues this is because they
would prefer “to progress upwardly within governments, with the intention of
claiming the post of Prime Minister – the position which dominates control of
state resources and therefore represents the most powerful position from which
to organize coalitions – or one of the other preferred portfolios” (Diamond).
This has thereby caused for the Prime Minister within Melanesian countries to become
responsible with mediating contending claims, through inducements (money,
ministerial positions, bureaucratic positions) and sanctions.

At the same time, political party allegiances have been
further weakened because national politicians have adopted pragmatic and
opportunistic attitudes towards attaining certain positions within the
coalitions. This has led to the importance of ideological differences being
greatly lessened. In addition to this, Prime Ministers have begun to give more
attention to gaining influence over utilities and placing allies and
party-members on governing boards of state-owned enterprises (citation). These
positions are representative of important strategic points with which to distribute
the resources and thereby strengthen the political alliances.

Classical liberal theorists have outlined the
responsibilities of parliaments and parliamentarians with four basic
expectations; first, they should constitute the executive, second, to make
laws, third, to oversee the executive arm of government, and lastly, represent
community concerns (Diamond). Unfortunately, these responsibilities have been
subordinated to factional contests. In Melanesian societies, fragmented party
structures have excluded policy making and law making from the public and
transparent realms of parliamentary debates, to “in-camera cabinet sessions,”
which has left the public, partisans, and many government officials unaware of
the implications and means of political machination (Baker). These negotiations
are often so tense that the Prime Minister’s attention is diverted from
important parliamentary procedures. The need for pragmatism has emphasized
patronage and pay-offs as well as lessening the importance of the social
cleavages or policy platforms that differentiate the parliamentary political
parties. This makes clearly defined rules such as Government and Opposition
appear secondary because most members of parliament seek not to oversee the
behavior of the executive but rather to join the Executive.

The maneuvering within the Melanesian political system has
led to high financial and political costs. In the past, executive governments
within Melanesia have been driven to extreme ends when attempting to raise the
funds necessary to maintain their political power. For example, after the 2004
elections in Vanuatu, Serge Vohor, at the head of an increasingly brittle
coalition and an internally fractious party (the Union of Moderate Parties),
opened diplomatic relations with Taiwan, despite Vanuatu’s One China Policy, to
access the funds needed to pay-off dissident coalition and party members (Electoral
Commission). Here, the vicissitudes of factional politics and the desire to
remain in power, were visibly driving policy. This illustrates how regime
instability within Melanesia tends to undermine policy effectiveness and
parliamentary functions such as law making and oversight. In Vanuatu, endemic
parliamentary instability brought policy making and oversight to a halt in the
mid-to-late 1990s. In the Solomon Islands the inscrutability and instability of
the national parliament precipitated the breakdown of social order. In Papua
New Guinea political instability and corruption led to a warrant for Prime
Minister Peter O’Neill’s arrest in 2014. 

Ways Forward for Melanesia

Despite the systemic weaknesses within Melanesian politics,
the mobilization of disparate political parties into coalition governments is
still the primary means by which government is formed. Parties tend to sustain functional
democratic institutions by strengthening accountability to the electorate and
responsiveness to their concerns and therefore remain an indispensable
institutional framework for democracy. Due to the importance of political
parties, many governments in developing societies have looked to party reform
as a way to promote better governance and democratic consolidation. This trend
has been influenced by comparative research on parties across a range of
contemporary democracies (Diamond). Stephen Haggard and Steven Webb argue that
“party system fragmentation can present particular barriers to achieving
substantive economic reform. Political engineers’ have focused primarily on
institutional reform, favoring two party system designs or stable coalitions
organized on a left-right basis, due to the promise of democratic durability” (Haggard
et al). Most developing nations have not evolved to dualistic party systems
despite this promise via designs based on minimal projects with broad social
and ideological bases. When developing nations have attempted to follow this
theory they have not seen party systems develop as expected.

Party strengthening programs throughout Africa, South
America, and Asia have historically failed, in the sense they’ve only had
ambiguous or minimal returns. Political engineers have advocated for a number
of alternative ways for crafting party systems to encourage their
development.  In particular, they have
focused on the design of electoral systems as a means of rewarding interethnic
moderation and encouraging cross-ethnic or cross-regional vote seeking.
Strengthening parties from the “top-down” via measures aimed at building
greater party discipline and organizational capacity is another mechanism for
influencing political behavior and developing stable party systems (Alasia).
Political engineers have paid little attention to the ways in which parties in
developing democracies emerge and are sustained. Nonetheless, one of the
simplest measures available to Melanesian states is to regulate party formation
and operation statutorily.

For example, Papua New Guinea experienced major
constitutional reform in 2000 and 2001 with the introduction of the Organic law
on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPC). The OLIPPC
reforms had two main goals—first, to stabilize and encourage the development of
political parties through new rules that regulate the formation, composition
and funding of parties; second, to stabilize the executive through provisions
that limit how Prime Ministers can vote on a motion of no confidence against
the executive (Chin). Despite minor amendments to the law in 2003 the initial
intent remains unchanged; yet OLIPPC has failed in attempting to discourage new
parties from being formed or split in Parliament. Indeed, there may be a
tendency in Papua New Guinea to place too much emphasis on changes to political
institutions when what lies at the heart of the problem are behavioral issues
or issues of political culture (Chin). The engineering of weak parties into
stronger alliances and the shifting of coalitions of independents into parties
will take time, or may not happen at all. For instance, the number of
parliamentary parties fell from 21 after the 2002 elections to 15 in the
aftermath of the 2004 elections, largely on account of the strict application
of registration rules and procedures.

Presently, it is crucial that reformists in Vanuatu and
Solomon Islands be afforded comparative experiences on which to draw in the
conceptualization of their own political party reform measures. Already some
proposed reforms have fallen foul of poor planning, have been beholden to overt
political agendas or have been unconstitutional. In 2004, for example,
Vanuatu’s parliament debated and passed constitutional amendments empowering
the Prime Minister to terminate disloyal Prime Ministers and establishing a
grace-period at the beginning and end of a government’s life in which no
“motions of no confidence” would be allowed (LaPalombarra et al).
Quickly labeled as the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, 50 of the 52
members of parliament voted for the proposals. The Vanuatu Court of Appeal
however, deemed the Bill unconstitutional: not only was “the Parliament without
the power to pass the act but also due process was abrogated” (LaPalombarra).
Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal of Vanuatu threw out the Fourth
Amendment. Consequently, the reform agenda in Vanuatu now reflects the example
set in Papua New Guinea more closely, with discussions currently being held
around the idea of regulating parties, making party registration mandatory,
establishing minimum party numbers, and demanding financial returns be
submitted by all registered parties. Minor parties have voiced reservations
about any strategies designed to bolster the power of the major parties on the
grounds that they will merely serve to entrench parties that are losing touch
with grassroots voters.

Political party strengthening initiatives must reflect this
reality to develop more stable and aggregative political party systems that
encourage stronger links between citizens and the government, and thereby
greater capacity for policy creation and implementation (Fraenkel). What are
often missing from the debates about political party engineering in Papua New Guinea
are the critical discussions about party functioning which take into account
these pressures and which conceptualize strategies for targeting local people’s
expectations of representation and reciprocity from their Prime Ministers –
issues that underpin contemporary party functioning in Melanesia. Irrespective
of OLIPPC’s implementation and the queries that are raised about its
constitutionality, advisability, and effectiveness, few comprehensive programs
have been attempted to educate Papua New Guineans about the laws implications,
import and constitutionality. Fundamental to the eventual success of OLIPPC
will be the level to which the Papua New Guinean government is able to
undertake the civic education, advocacy, and lobbying needed to bolster
awareness about the implications of the regulatory framework provided by this
legislation (Fraenkel).  


No agreement rises up out of the worldwide writing on party strengthening
about how best to expand the interest of gatherings past their coordinate
arrangement of balloters and how best to rise above the connections of support,
ethnicity and area which portray party functioning in Melanesia. Given the
current political administration courses of action in Melanesia, parties are in
any case fundamental to just state working. What stay challenged are the
suitable roads for affecting the adjustment of Melanesian political gatherings,
for restricting floor crossings and for empowering the interests of all.
Neither party engineering nor constituent changes intended to total party
interests are especially shoddy or basic alternatives. In addition, appointive
changes tend to hurl startling outcomes. Be that as it may, advancing
successful political administration through discourse and careful
administrative changes, went down by viable relational systems furthermore, judiciously
connected specialized help projects may offer the possibility of accomplishment
to the current change bundles, and give models to local nations to combine,
assess and, where fitting, receive.