Sep 23, 2020 Last Updated 9:19 PM, Sep 22, 2020

Kiribati gave Taneti Maamau a resounding victory at the island nation’s presidential poll on 22 June, rewarding him with a second and final four-year term.

As the ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) leader, Maamau polled 26,053 votes, about 59 per cent of total vote cast. His rival Banuera Berina of the Boutokaan Kiribati Moa managed 17,866 votes, winning majority votes in only seven out of the 23 constituencies.

Berina who was chairman of the TKP until he crossed the floor to the opposition late last year was no match it appears to the promises of huge cash bonuses Maamau offered voters.

The opposition gamble of putting up as their candidate someone who had been in the same party as Maamau backfired, although there are others who would argue that the opposition didn’t have much of a choice after its leader Titabu Tabane lost his seat in the parliamentary elections in April.

Read more in the latest Islands Business.

The intense campaign in Kiribati’s presidential election has been dogged by allegations of interference by China’s ambassador to the country.

Opposition presidential candidate, Banuera Berina, said China must stop campaigning for his rival, and caretaker Kiribati president, Taneti Maamau.

“China should respect our sovereignty as an independent island nation,” Berina told Islands Business in a telephone interview this week.

“It should not be seen to be supporting and assisting one particular political party in Kiribati.

“It appears that I am competing not against one but two opponents,” added the long time politician and lawyer based in Tarawa, the capital.

Islands Business has sought responses from both the office of caretaker President Maamau and the Chinese Embassy in Tarawa, and although nothing has been sent from the President’s office, the Embassy has rejected the allegations.

“We do not interfere in any other countries’ internal affairs,” said the embassy. “China’s practice is upright and aboveboard.

“Secondly the embassy conducts official exchanges and promotes cooperation with the government of the receiving country.”

The Chinese Embassy confirms that it conducts community and school visits in Tarawa but only to “deepen mutual understanding and friendship.”

Berina however remained defiant that Chinese ambassador to Kiribati, Tang Songgen and his senior Embassy officials have been openly campaigning for President Maamau.

He gave several examples; one was reports that the Chinese Ambassador had been distributing free t-shirts and baseball caps to people on Tarawa.

The other was the offer that caretaker President Maamau’s party, Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) allegedly made to people on Maiana atoll, that the Chinese government was willing to fund the construction of their new maneaba (meeting house) if they convince their two parliamentary representatives to support Maamau’s re-election.

One of the atoll’s previous parliamentary reps was Anote Tong, the predecessor of Maamau.

The administration’s decision to sign aid agreements with China while in caretaker mode was another example provided by Berina.

Berina claims that Chinese’s involvement in the presidential election campaign is so blatant and intense that the upcoming presidential vote is fast turning out to be a referendum on the future of Kiribati-Chinese relations.

“This is not on. China should not be playing any role in our elections. As I see it, because of their involvement in the elections, China is making the upcoming presidential election a referendum on whether Kiribati should recognise China or switch back to Taiwan.

“If they vote for government, then they want Kiribati to remain with China, but if they vote for me, then the people of Kiribati want us to restore relations with Taiwan.

“This is the price China will have to pay for not respecting our sovereignty as an independent island nation.”

The issue of China plays a big role in Kiribati politics, and Maamau’s decision in November last year to withdraw its recognition of Taiwan and to ally itself with mainland China triggered a series of political mishaps.

His party lost its majority in parliament when Berina left the ruling TKP with 12 other government MPs to join the opposition’s Boutokan te Koaua (BTK).

This led to the defeat of President Maamau’s 2020 budget, and the formation of Berina’s Kiribati First Party, or KFP. For the 22 June presidential vote however, Berina is the joint KFP and BTK candidate, the two parties reportedly forming a coalition now know as BKM on 1 May, at the completion of parliamentary elections.

Under Kiribati’s constitution, the party with the largest number of MPs in parliament does not necessarily form government. It is the voters that directly vote for their President and the onus would be on the elected leader to lure MPs to join him in government.

Writing in May’s Islands Business magazine, retired i-Kiribati scholar Teweiariki Teaero said April’s parliamentary elections saw the ruling TKP with 12 MPs and eight MPs each for BTK and KFP, leaving the remaining 14 new MPs to decide which side of parliament they would align themselves to.

Closed behind their borders amid fears of the Covid-19 virus, electors in Kiribati turned out in two rounds to elect members of the twelfth parliament, the Mwaneaba ni Maungatabu, paving the way for a certain battle between old ‘political bedmates’, caretaker President Taneti Maamau of Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) and the middle-path party Kiribati First Party’s (KFP) leader, lawyer Banuera Berina in the presidential race in June. Former Leader of the Opposition Boutokan te Koaua (BTK) party, lawyer Titabu Tabane, lost his seat from Tab South in the second round of elections. The nation awaits BTK’s nomination for a candidate to contest the presidential race. Maamau and Berina are first round winners on their respective islands, proving their strengths at the polls.

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The Vanuatu Electoral Commission has hit its worst nightmare as the official results continue to be delayed due to the COVID-19 situation and sadly, the passing of its Electoral Chairman Martin Tete in the early hours today at the Vila Central hospital (VCH).

Tete was reportedly admitted to VCH over the weekend after feeling unwell.

He served the Vanuatu Electoral Office for over a decade. Tete is well-respected for his unimpeachable integrity and is being mourned as died before the official declaration of wining candidates could be made.

He has been an integral part of Vanuatu’s electoral process and his passing will leave a big gap and loss for the country.

The Electoral Office today announced that their office will close until Thursday following the passing of Tete.

Caretaker Minister of Internal Affairs Andrew Napuat said it is a very challenging time for the government and the Ministry he leads: “The global threat in COVID-19 is being managed by the task-force set up by the government.

“Our role regarding elections and the loss of our chairman is to consult the State Law Office to advise us on the legal provisions that we should follow in such situations to ensure we publish the results as required by law.”

Meanwhile, as Vanuatu remains alert over the COVID-19 situation the transportation of ballot boxes from outer islands coming into Port Vila were monitored strictly over COVID-19 fears.

A patrol boat from the Solomon Islands that was in Vanuatu to help with the election has reportedly been isolated with all its crews and force members quarantined after returning from Aneiytum island.

They were quarantined including ballot boxes after reports emerged that a tourist who visited the island tested positive on arrival in Australia after visiting the island on Voyager of the Seas cruise ship this month.

Caretaker Minister Napuat urged the people of Vanuatu to remain calm and assured them that his office is doing everything under the law to ensure the results are published as required.

With the unofficial results now up and the advice from the Ministry of Health and Task force team to avoid social gatherings and maintain social distancing, political lobbying might take a new form where political parties and candidates do away with the traditional way of camping to maintain numbers, and instead ‘camp’ electronically through the use of social media.  

To date, caretaker PM Charlot Salwai and Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu appear to have held their seats. Regenvanu's Graon Mo Jastis Party has nine seats, the Reunification Movement for Change has eight, the Leaders Party of Vanuatu also has eight seats, and the  Vanua'aku Party has six according to the unofficial count.

 

It’s election campaign time in Vanuatu where women candidates will try their luck once more to outpoll their male counterparts and end the ‘zero women in parliament’ drought with hopes for a place in Parliament.

The Vanuatu Electoral Commission on Tuesday announced the names of eligible candidates to run for the 2020 election. Of the 234 total candidates, 223 are men and 11 are female candidates.

The number of female candidates could increase in the coming days once the ineligible candidates fix their outstanding debts with various government departments. They have 72 hours to do that under the election laws of Vanuatu.

In 2016, ten women contested the national election. None made it into the national Parliament.

Of the 11 female candidates declared by the Electoral Commission yesterday, seven are rallying under different political parties while four are contesting as Independents.

Anne Pakoa, who will be running as an Independent for one of the four Port Vila constituency seats believes women prefer to run as Independents for various reasons.

“Personally, I think political Parties do not accept them, secondly parties’ policies are not agreeable to the candidate and in particular women, they must pass some crazy male-based criteria to be accepted into a male-dominated party.

“It takes a lot to be a leader in a small island developing state like Vanuatu where we are culturally and spiritually strong,” she said.

Pakoa believes women must go the extra mile to prove themselves worthy to run for office.

The poor representation of women in Vanuatu parliament is a continuing trend. Since Independence, only five women have been elected into parliament, the most recent in 2008.

With only 11 women declared eligible to run for the election during the first announcement on Tuesday, the slow response from government departments to the Electoral commission on the candidates’ eligibility is also causing delays and doubts for many candidates.

One of the prominent women leaders whose name was not read out during the declaration of eligible candidates, Dr. Andrina Kl Thomas, said she has already settled her outstanding fee of Vt 9000 (approximately FJD$167) and is ready to start her campaign at her constituency on the Island of Santo very soon.

“We have to give it a go and I will continue to influence, educate and advocate for the adoption of good governance ethics and integrity standards aimed at improving institutional performances.”

While women in Vanuatu continue to struggle to make it into the national parliament, there have been some positive developments in the representation of women in higher government positions and in the private sector.

Prior to the launching of the Vanuatu election campaign on Tuesday, a panel discussion in Port Vila hosted by the Vanuatu Dialogue Live Team considered the theme ‘the rise of women does not mean the fall of men’.

The Vanuatu election campaign is now ongoing and will end at midnight on March 16 ahead of polling day on March 19.

A final official declaration of eligible candidates will be announced this coming Friday.

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