Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan Prime Minister Natano loses seat in partial election results

Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano

The pro-Taiwan leader of the Pacific islands nation of Tuvalu, Kausea Natano, has lost his seat according to partial election results.

The vote is being closely watched by Taiwan, China and the United States, amid speculation the micronation could be poised to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties this month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Kausea Natano had pledged to continue support for Taiwan, a diplomatic ally since 1979. Another leadership contender, Seve Paeniu, has said diplomatic ties should be reviewed, with the new government deciding whether Taiwan or China can best respond to Tuvalu’s needs.

Results for the electorate of Funafuti released on Saturday on a Tuvalu TV showed Natano did not retain his seat. 

Paeniu was returned unopposed in the Nukulaelae island electorate, and said he will seek to form a coalition among elected lawmakers to run for prime minister.

There are no political parties in Tuvalu’s parliament, where two lawmakers are elected in each of eight island electorates.

The diplomatic tussle between Taiwan and China comes amid a wider contest for influence in the Pacific between China and the US, with Washington recently pledging the first submarine cable to connect Tuvalu to global telecommunications. Paeniu said on Saturday the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

“Our last government under prime minister Natano had extensive internal discussions about it upon the commencement of our term in government to determine our policy stance on it, so undoubtedly the new government would need to look at the matter and decide its policy position accordingly,” he said.

Taiwanese ambassador to Tuvalu Andrew Lin recently dismissed the idea of a potential switch, telling AFP the two allies enjoyed a “very long-term friendship” that would endure beyond the election.

Reacting to the partial results, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its understanding was that most of those elected “support the maintenance of the friendship between the two countries”.

The ministry said it would pay close attention to post-election developments and continue to deepen friendship and cooperation with newly elected members of parliament to ensure stable relations.

Tuvalu’s election commissioner Tufoua Panapa said on Friday evening after polling booths closed that the new lawmakers will meet this week to vote for a prime minister, at a time notified by the governor general.

“We will have a clearer picture by this week – as we need to bring elect-MPs to the capital island, from the outer-islands,” he said. The boat journey can take up to 27 hours.

Another leadership contender, Enele Sopoaga, was still waiting for results. Sopoaga previously supported Taiwan ties, but wants a security deal with Australia to be scrapped.

Former foreign minister Simon Kofe, who attracted global headlines in 2021 when he delivered a speech to the United Nations climate change summit standing knee-deep in water to highlight the plight of the low-lying nation, has retained his seat in parliament for Funafuti.

Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong said the country looked forward to working with the new Tuvalu government. “Australia and Tuvalu are longstanding friends, sharing an interest in building a stronger, more resilient and more peaceful Pacific,” she said in a statement on social media. There are only a little over 6,000 registered voters in the country. It’s understood votes are still coming in from the atolls of Vaitupu and Nukufetau.