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by Eva Wagner, Programme Coordinator Rule of Law, Energy and Development Policy

This piece was originally published as the introduction to the latest edition of the 'KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot' - a potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer a panorama overview of the debate in these countries. The original version contains hyperlinks.

The Republic of Kiribati held general elections in April 2020.

About

Kiribati is a former British colony known as Gilbert Islands, named after Captain Thomas Gilbert. Located in the central Pacific Ocean, it is made up of 33 coral atolls and islands, 21 of which are inhabited. In 1979, the country became independent from the UK. In the same year, Kiribati and the United States entered into the Treaty of Tarawa, which came into force in 1983. The US relinquished its claims to the Phoenix and Line Islands but retained the right to maintain military bases in Canton (Kanton), Enderbury and Hull (Orona). The Treaty was initially concluded for 10 years and has since been affirmed by either country as the framework for their bilateral relations. Kiribati’s land area only makes up 0.1% of the country, with the remaining 99.9% (almost 3,450,000 sq km) being ocean. Kiribati claims the Pacific's 2nd largest and the world’s 12th largest Exclusive Economic Zone. Kiribati spans the equator which means it a desirable location for satellite telemetry and spacecraft launching facilities. The Guardian reports that one of its islands, Kiritimati (Christmas) Island (the world’s largest atoll) would be of particular interest, because of its proximity to US military installations, and because it was only scarcely populated, had a giant deep water pier and a spare runway. And, its lagoon could be turned into a port. Kiribati is the only country in the world to be situated in all four hemispheres. Since the Government's decision to move the international date line in 1995, there are 3 standard time zones between 12 and 14 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. Kiribati has about 115,000 inhabitants, more than half of which live in its capital Tarawa, with a small diaspora in Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific countries. The people of Kiribati are Micronesian and speak English (the official language) and Gilbertese (also known as i-Kiribati).

Parliamentary system

Kiribati’s parliamentary system is described as a blend of both the British and American systems. The country has a unicameral parliament (Maneaba ni Maungatabu) usually composed of 46 members. Most MPs are elected by non-compulsory universal suffrage, the attorney-general (who may be a member of parliament) is appointed ex officio by the president, and one member is appointed by the so-called Rabi Council, for a four-year term. The latter represents the former inhabitants of the island of Banaba. They were relocated to the Fijian island of Rabi in the 1940s, after their island had become unihabitable due to open-cut phosphate mining. In the 1970s, they became Fijian citizens but retained their rights to residence and representation in Kiribati. In the country’s two-round voting system, candidates in single-member electorates who poll more than 50% of the votes in the first round are reportedly elected. If no candidate secures half of the votes, there is a second round between the top candidates. In multi-member electorates, voters may reportedly cast votes for up to the full number of vacant seats, and candidates must win 25% or more of the votes to be elected. If there is second round of votes required, we are told that the candidate with the highest number of votes wins. The speaker is elected ex officio by the members of parliament. He (now she, see below) may not be a member of parliament and has no voting rights. In the first parliamentary sitting, members nominate no more than four presidential candidates. The president (Te Beretitenti) is then elected by popular vote on a first past the post basis. He/She is head of government and head of state, and appoints his/her own cabinet, including the vice-president, the attorney-general and several ministers.

There were no political parties until 1985. Since then, even though loosely structured parties emerged, candidates continued to stand for election as independent individuals. According to the Government’s websites, members may change allegiance various times during their tenure. It is also said to be common for members to vote according to their electorate’s special interests in certain issues. Current parties include the former President’s (Taneti Maamau) Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) (‘tobwaan’ may be translated as ‘embracing’). TKP was launched as a result of a merger between the Maurin Kiribati Party (MKP) and the United Coalition Party (UCP) in early 2016. In the end of 2019, TKP lost its chairperson (Banuera Berina) over President Maamau's decision to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. Mr Berina launched the new Kiribati Moa Party (KMP) (‘moa’ may be translated as ‘first’). Other members of the ruling party also defected to the newly formed party, resulting in the government losing its majority in parliament. In October 2019, Ioteaba Tebau, a member of the opposition bloc which then held the majority in parliament, moved no confidence votes against President Maamau, which were disallowed by the Speaker. In November 2019, the Kiribati High Court ruled upon KMP’s application that the disallowance was “erroneous and insupportable”, and that the Speaker must allow the motion. The opposition’s attempt to re-move the no confidence vote was again quashed by the Speaker. Tebuai Uaai adjourned the parliamentary session, a day before parliament was scheduled to close for the year. The opposition sought a High court order for a special sitting so that it could move the no confidence vote, apparently to no avail.

The 2020 elections

In the 2020 elections, 44,929 registered voters were called upon to elect the 12th Parliament. In the first round of elections, more than 34,000 valid votes were cast despite coronavirus fears (no case has been reported to date). 23 MPs were declared elected in this round, 16 of whom were current and seven were new to parliament. Former President and caretaker leader Taneti Maamau as well as several ministers from the current caretaker government have retained their seats:

Teima Onorio - former Vice-President and long-time MP

Alexander Teabo - former Minister for the Environment, Lands and Agriculture Development

Ruateki Tekaiara - former Minister for Infrastructure and Sustainable Energy

Willie Tokataake - former Minister for Information, Communication, Transport and Tourism Development

James Toum - former Minister for Justice

There were two women elected in the first round, namely the aforementioned former Vice-President Teima Onorio and independent newcomer Tessie Lambourne. In the second round of elections, the remaining seats were allocated, including to two more women:

Shiu Fung Jong, Pillars of Truth Party

Taabeta Teakai, Independent

In sum, voters elected 41 men and 4 women (the highest number to date), with 16 (or one third) being new to parliament. Dr Tinte Itinteang, the new MP for the electorate of Betio, reportedly said that "voters wanted fresh ideas". The former President’s TKP and its allies purportedly won 22 seats, meaning his party has lost (or rather failed to regain) its majority. The remaining seats were reportedly won by two parties, including Mr Berina’s newly founded party, which is said to have achieved 13 seats. Following a merger with the Pillars of Truth Party on 22 May, KMP is said to hold 22 seats. While the Government’s list of current members has not yet been updated, Radio Kiribati posted the following members by electorate on 22 April:

Makin – (1) James Taom and (2) Pinto Katia

Butaritari – (3) Alexander Teabo and (4) Tinian Reiher

Marakei – (5) Moannata Ientaake (new) and (6) Ruateki Tekaiara

Abaiang – (7) Dr Teuea Toatu, (8) Dr Kautu Tenaua and (9) Betero Atanibora (new)

Maiana – (10) Koraubati Remuera (new) and (11) Vincent Tong (new)

South Tarawa – (12) Taabeta Tekai (new), (13) Shiufung Jong and (14) Taoaba Kaiea

North Tarawa – (15) Harry Tekaiti (new), (16) Terieta Mwemwenikeaki (new) and (17) Boutu Bateriki Baree

Kuria – (18) Banuera Berina

Aranuka – (19) Martin Moreti

Abemama – (20) Willie Tokataake and (21) Tessie Eria Lambourne (new)

Nonouti – (22) Sir Ieremia Tabai and (22) Bonteman Tabera

Tabiteuea North – (23) Tarakabu Martin (new) and (24) Taberannang Timeon

Tabiteuea South – (25) Booti Nauan (new)

Beru – (26) Batoromaio Kiritian (new) and (27) England Iuta

Onotoa – (28) Taneti Maamau and (29) Taiaki Irata (new)

Nikunau – (30) Tauanei Marea and (31) Ribanataake Tiwau (new)

Tamana – (32) Tekeua Tariti

Arorae – (33) Teima Onorio

Banaba – (34) Tibanga Taratai

Kiritimati (Christmas) – (35) Mikarite Temari, (36) Jacob Tiekabu Teem and (37) Bakaia Kiabo (new)

Tabuaeran (Fanning) – (38) Tekiau Aretateta and (39) Tewaaki Kobae

Teraina (Washington) – (40) Nantongo Timeon

In the first parliamentary session on 22 May, members took their oath and elected Tangarik Reete (who narrowly missed out on the Betio seat in the election) as Speaker. The former Minister for Women, Youth and Social Affairs is the country’s first female Speaker and defeated the former Speaker, Tebuai Uaai, by 25 to19 votes.

The presidential election is scheduled for 22 June. Mr Maamau and Mr Berina are the only two candidates for president. Mr Berina is a graduate of the University of Otago in Dunedin / New Zealand. He previously declared that his party, if elected, would review Kiribati’s ties with China, which he accused of leaving Pacific nations debt-straddled.

Kiribati had diplomatic ties with Taiwan between 2003 and 2019, and it will be interesting to observe if it will resume these ties this year.

 

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Eva Wagner

Neues Portrait

Programmkoordinatorin Rechtsstaatlichkeit, Energie- und Entwicklungspolitik

eva.wagner@kas.de +61 2 6154 9323