The islands of Vanuatu have been inhabited since 500 BCE, and the region was part of the Tongan Empire into the 14th century. European sailors visited it briefly and at long intervals from early in the 17th century. The name ‘New Hebrides’ was given to the islands by Captain James Cook on his visit in 1774. In 1789 the islands were called at by rescuers seeking Captain Bligh and his officers, who had been turned loose with provisions in an open boat after the mutiny on the Bounty.
During the 19th century French and English Christian missionaries and some traders and planters settled on some of the islands which became an Anglo–French condominium by 1906. The New Hebrides, as it was then called, was ruled by separate British and French administrations, laying the foundations for some of the problems that have erupted since independence.
After World War II, a power struggle developed between the dual colonial interests and the indigenous islanders, initially over the alienation of land by the Europeans. The first major change was agreement, at a meeting between France and the UK in 1974, to setting up a representative assembly (with a majority elected by universal franchise) to replace the colonial advisory council. The first national elections followed in November 1975, but disagreements among the four chiefs representing traditional interests delayed elections to the seats reserved for chiefs.
Just a few months after the assembly had come into full operation in early 1977, a second boycott brought its operations to a halt. The largest party, the Vanua’aku Pati (VP), led by an Anglican priest, Father Walter Lini, objected to the reservation of six seats for members of the Chamber of Commerce. Reluctant to make any compromise agreement, the VP went on to boycott the ensuing conference in Paris in July 1977 and the subsequent general election. A government of national unity was formed in 1978 and, with advisory help from France and the UK, a new constitution providing for independence in 1980 was adopted in October 1979. Elections in November 1979 gave victory to the VP, and Lini became Prime Minister. The archipelago gained independence on 30 July 1980 as Vanuatu and joined the Commonwealth.
After independence, the VP remained in power for 11 years, under the leadership of Lini. During this period an attempt at secession, supported by the Na-Griamel movement and some francophone inhabitants, was suppressed. Lini was twice re- elected Prime Minister (1983 and 1987). After the 1987 elections, Lini was challenged for the party leadership by Barak Sope, who subsequently formed a new party – the Melanesian Progressive Party (MPP) – and for a brief period became Prime Minister of an interim government, pending elections. However, before these elections could be held, Lini resumed as Prime Minister. Sope and several members of the interim government were arrested on charges of treason. They were convicted but their prison sentences were subsequently quashed following appeals from the international community. In September 1991, Donald Kalpokas succeeded Lini as leader of the VP and Prime Minister.
The general election of December 1991 brought in a new government, a coalition led by Maxime Carlot Korman, leader of the francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP). The coalition surprisingly included members of the National United Party (NUP), a party formed by former Prime Minister Lini who had broken away from the VP. The NUP itself split in mid-1993, with Lini’s group joining the opposition, alongside the VP, the MPP and the Fren Melanesia Party (FMP). Korman maintained his majority, governing until the general election of 1995. The immediate result of the 1995 elections was a coalition government led by Serge Vohor (UMP). After two months, he was replaced by Korman. Less than eight months later, in September 1996, Korman lost a vote of no confidence and resigned after members of his coalition government were criticised by the national ombudsman in her report on the uncovering of a massive bank fraud. Vohor once again became Prime Minister.
Divisions within the government over implementation of the Asian Development Bank-funded economic reforms led to its defeat in November 1997 and to the dissolution of parliament. On 12 January 1998 a state of emergency was declared following rioting in Port Vila, which broke out as 500 people attempted to withdraw their investments in the National Provident Fund, following allegations that politicians had misused the Fund. There was an early general election in March 1998, when a record 220 candidates contested 52 seats (increased from 50 since the previous elections in 1995). The VP won 18 seats, the UMP 12, the NUP 11 and other parties 11; no party had an overall majority. However, after 12 days of negotiations Donald Kalpokas (VP) and Lini (NUP) formed a coalition government. Kalpokas was elected Prime Minister, with the support of 35 members of parliament; he appointed Lini as Deputy Prime Minister. In October 1998, Kalpokas dismissed Lini, excluding the NUP from the coalition, and formed new alliances with the UMP and the John Frum Movement (JFM). Vanuatu’s leader at independence and first Prime Minister (1980–91), Father Walter Lini, died at the age of 57 in February 1999.
During August 1999 opposition parties won three of the four by- elections to be held, giving them control of 26 of the 52 parliamentary seats, and putting them in a strong position to defeat the government, which finally occurred in November 1999 after two government members defected to the opposition and Barak Sope (MPP) was elected Prime Minister by 28 votes to 24. However, the new government was soon involved in political controversy and its authority was undermined by leaks of cabinet documents to the press. In April 2001, after nine members of the ruling coalition defected to the opposition, Sope lost a no- confidence vote, and VP leader Edward Natapei became Prime Minister and immediately announced there would be an inquiry into the previous government’s controversial deal with a Thai businessman.