Modern history starts in Vanuatu with the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós in 1606. Little is known about the islands prior to that although it is believed that Austronesian people may have occupied some of the islands for several thousand years before.
The French also visited in 1768 in the form of Louis Antoine de Bougainville but it was Captain James Cook who named the islands the New Hebrides in 1774; the name they retained until 1980.
The following period was a time of commerce including the trade of sandalwood, cotton, cocoa, coffee and bananas. But by 1882 there were more French than British people living in the islands and the modern day capital of Port Vila was then named Franceville.
The French and British governments agreed to declare the islands a neutral territory in 1878. In 1906 the two countries agreed to administer the islands jointly and it was called the British-French Condominium.
The resulting chaotic form of government was finally challenged in the 1940s but it took until the 1970s to persuade both governments to grant independence. From the 1960s the British were happy to grant the islanders self-determination but the French were concerned about the impact on some of their other colonies.
Political parties sprang up in the early 1970s, most notably the New Hebrides National Party. Independence was finally granted on 31st July 1980. On the eve of independence the island of Espiritu Santo decided to declare itself independent of the new state but after a short war was brought back into the fold.
Father Walter Lini, an Anglican priest, became the first Prime Minister of the new Vanuatu and he and his Vanua’aku Pati (VP) formerly the New Hebrides National Party ruled until 1991.
Then it was the turn of Maxime Carlot Korman of the Union of Moderate Parties (UMP). He served twice as prime minister and the party was the dominant party until 1998. During this later period parliament became somewhat unstable and five prime ministers served the nation.
In 1997 the president dissolved parliament and in fresh elections in March 1998 Donald Kalpokas, the leader of the Vanua’aku Pati, was elected prime minister. A further period of turmoil in parliament saw fresh elections in 2002 and 2004 with the Vanua’aku Pati becoming the largest party in an alliance with the Vanuatu National United Party.
In 2008 the Vanua’aku Pati was once again the largest party in a coalition of parties including the National United Party and the Vanuatu Republican Party. In 2009 Prime Minister Edward Natapei threw these two parties out of his government after they were suspected of conspiring in a vote of no confidence in him and he formed a new coalition government with the so called Alliance of opposition parties which included the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and Union of Moderate Parties (UMP).
The current prime minister is Sato Kilman, after two further changes of prime minister due to no confidence votes. A general election has been called for 30th October 2012.
The President is elected for a five year term by an electoral college consisting of Parliament and the Presidents of the regional councils.
There is a unicameral Parliament with 52 members elected by popular vote to serve four year terms.