Vanuatu elects Kilman as prime minister amid crisis over Australia pact

The move comes after a court upheld a vote of no-confidence in Ishmael Kalsaku who had sought closer security ties with Australia.

Vanuatu’s parliament has elected Sato Kilman as the Pacific Island nation’s new prime minister after a court upheld a vote of no-confidence in his predecessor who had sought closer security ties with Australia.

Kilman, a former prime minister and leader of the People’s Progressive Party, was elected on Monday with 27 votes in a secret ballot.

Some 23 legislators voted against him.

“As the new prime minister, I can assure everyone that I will do my best to communicate with other political leaders to bring an end to instability in Vanuatu,” Kilman said.

He told parliament he would review foreign policy so that it benefitted Vanuatu more and would seek new export markets.

Vanuatu, a small island nation in a region where the United States and its allies are vying with China for influence, was plunged into a political crisis last month when opposition leader Bob Loughman lodged a no-confidence petition against former Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau.

Loughman, who drew Vanuatu closer to China as the previous prime minister, criticised Kalsaku for signing a yet-to-be-ratified security deal with Australia, saying it compromised the country’s “neutral” status and could jeopardise development assistance from China, its biggest external creditor.

The no-confidence motion secured 26 votes, compared with 23 votes against, but the parliament’s speaker ruled it failed to win the absolute majority of 27 necessary to remove a prime minister in the 52-seat parliament. One seat was vacant and one legislator did not attend the session due to illness.

Supreme Court judge Edwin Goldsbrough ruled late last month that because one seat was vacant, the absolute majority should be 26.

Speaker Seoule Simeon appealed the ruling but the court on Monday dismissed the case, paving the way for the vote for a new prime minister.

This is the fifth time Kilman has been elected prime minister. His most recent stint was back in 2016.

As prime minister, Kilman expelled 12 Australian Federal Police from Vanuatu in 2012, after he was stopped while transiting through an Australian airport and his adviser was arrested by Australian police on tax fraud charges.

Police cooperation between the two nations resumed in 2013 after Kilman lost office.

After returning to the top job, Kilman travelled to Beijing in June 2015 to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and pledged closer ties between the two countries.

The crisis in Vanuatu comes as the US and its allies seek to dissuade Pacific Island nations from establishing security ties with China after the Solomon Islands agreed to a policing pact with Beijing.

China sent police experts and equipment to Vanuatu amid the turmoil, with Beijing’s Ambassador Li Minggang saying that such cooperation would improve capacity and promote social and economic development. Vanuatu’s police force said it had “good working relations with all partners – Australia, New Zealand and China”.

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