Vanuatu court rules pro-Western premier lost no-confidence vote

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Vanuatu's Supreme Court has ruled that a no-confidence motion in Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau was won by the nation's opposition party last week, but has stayed action to remove him to allow for an appeal.

Vanuatu, at the centre of a strategic rivalry between China and Western countries in the Pacific Islands, was plunged into political crisis after opposition leader Bob Loughman lodged the no-confidence petition criticising Kalsakau for signing a security pact with Australia, and raising the minimum wage.

The no-confidence motion garnered 26 votes, compared to 23 votes against, but the parliament's speaker ruled it failed to win the absolute majority of 27 to remove a prime minister in the 52-seat parliament.

One seat is vacant and one lawmaker did not attend the session due to illness.

Supreme Court judge Edwin Goldsbrough ruled on Friday that an absolute majority in a parliament with 51 members is 26.

A stay, to allow an appeal, is in place until Monday afternoon. If there is no appeal, or it is rejected, parliament would vote in a new prime minister.

Loughman drew Vanuatu closer to China as the previous prime minister. His government lost a snap national election in 2022.

He has criticised the security pact with Australia, saying it compromises Vanuatu's "neutral" status and could jeopardise development assistance from China.

Kalsakau rejected this as unfounded, and highlighted the high-level visits to Vanuatu by Western nations, including French President Emmanuel Macron in July, during his eight months in office. Macron gave a speech warning against a "new imperialism" in the Pacific - comments taken to refer to China.

China has been a major infrastructure lender to Vanuatu.

The United States and its allies are seeking to dissuade Pacific Islands nations from establishing security ties with Beijing, after China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham, editing by Mark Heinrich)