Category Archives: Kiribati

Kiribati – New President Taneti Maamau elected

Kiribati went to the polls again last week to elect Taneti Maamau as their new Beretitenti or President. Under the two round runoff electoral system presidential candidates are nominated by members of the Maneaba ni Maungatabu (parliament) and then compete in a nation wide ballot. Maamau ran against two candidates from the ruling Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) party, Rimeta Beniamina and Tianeti Ioane, eventually winning more than 20,000 votes. The President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government.

Maamau is the fifth president of Kiribati since the country became independent in 1979. As outlined previously on this blog, Kiribati’s stability is an anomaly in a region where votes-of-no-confidence regularly topple governments. Constitutional provisions that ensure votes-of-no-confidence automatically trigger full elections are a key reason why this mechanism is rarely used in Kiribati.

Maamau’s election is significant for a number of reasons:

First, it brings an end to 12 years of BTK rule under the leadership of former President, Anote Tong. Tong had served the maximum three terms allowable under the Kiribati constitution. His advocacy work on climate change issues in particular had thrust the tiny island nation into the international spotlight. In recognition of this achievement Tong was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, the new Beretitenti will initially lead a minority coalition of 20 MPs. The BTK Opposition will have 25 MPs. Holding the new government together while attracting disgruntled MPs from the BTK is likely to be a key feature of Maamau’s first year in office. Indeed, the Coalition have expressed their confidence in winning over new members, with former President, Teburoro Tito, telling Radio New Zealand International that:

“We know that we may not work too hard to attract some of these people form the other party because they have already made indications when the election of the speaker was conducted some weeks back. So we think it is not going to be an insurmountable task for us to get numbers on our side.”

Tito’s confidence reflects the high personalised nature of Kiribati politics and the fact that political parties play a minor role in mobilizing voters. In this context being a member of government offers MPs greater access to resources that, if used effectively, can improve their re-election chances.

Third, the new government has been quick to claim a mandate for change. The nature of this change and the means by which it will achieved remains somewhat unclear. At the very least Maamau’s election represents something of a generational shift with the independence generation of politicians being slowly replaced by a new cohort of leaders. Its not that they are all gone – past presidents Tito and Tabai remain in parliament and the former is likely to be a key figure in Maamau’s government despite not holding a ministerial portfolio – but the baton is being passed on. Given the economic and social challenges that confront the island nation this is a sizable responsibility for the new man in charge and his cabinet.

Kiribati – What does it take to become President?

2015 shapes as an important year in Kiribati politics as it will be the last of current President Anote Tong’s tenure in office. First elected Beretitenti [President] in 2003, Tong has served the maximum three terms allowed for under the Kiribati constitution and so he cannot contest the next ballot. Taking up where I left off in this post about the profile of Presidents in FSM, here I look back at the people who have been President in Kiribati and cast my eye over possible contenders for the top job this time around.

As outlined here, Kiribati is somewhat unique among Pacific Island countries in that it has enjoyed relative political stability since independence in 1979. There have only been four Heads of Government, for example, which is a marked contrast to other Pacific countries, especially in neighboring Tuvalu or Melanesia. Like nearby Marshall Islands and Nauru, the President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government. One distinguishing feature is its two-round runoff electoral system in which the Parliament nominates up to four of its members after each election to contest a nation-wide ballot for the Presidency.

All four Presidents of Kiribati are currently still Members of Parliament (MP), although, as I will discuss further below, this may well change at the next election. The first President, Sir Ieremia Tabai, was New Zealand educated and took the country to independence at just 29 years old. On the completion of his three terms his Vice President, Teatao Teannaki was elected, although some commentators believed that Tabai continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes before and after his appointment as Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 1992. Teannaki, who incidentally is much older than the other three (he was born in 1936 whereas the others were born in the early 1950s), was educated in the UK and only served one term as President. His successor, Teburoro Tito, was educated in Fiji and came from the opposite side of politics to Tabai and Teannaki (although the membership of parliamentary coalitions is fluid in Kiribati). He is also the only one of the four to be elected from a Tarawa constituency. Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati and is home to around 50% of the population. Tito was eventually defeated in a no-confidence motion, which led to the election of Tong in 2003 after a brief caretaker period. Educated in the UK, Tong has been especially vocal on climate change issues during his Presidency, which has led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

While the sample is obviosuly tiny, many of the patterns identified in the FSM post are also apparent in Kiribati. Presidents tend to be male, overseas educated from professional backgrounds, which means that even if they are not born in Tarawa they have spent most of their lives living there or overseas. It also means that they have the financial resources to compete in election campaigns. Campaigning is increasingly expensive in Pacific Island countries and the two-round runoff system means that prospective Presidents have to fund both an initial parliamentary contest and then a later nation-wide Presidential campaign. Kiribati is a geographically large country (21 inhabited islands spread across more than 3 million kilometers of ocean) and so having a national profile, often developed by performance in parliamentary debates that are widely broadcast on radio, helps. The backing of local members from each of Kiribati’s atoll constituencies is also important.

Keeping that in mind, who might vie for the top job this time around? The fluid nature of Kiribati politics makes any outcome hard to predict but we might expect that the two losers in the last Presidential campaign, Dr. Tetaua Taitai and Rimeta Beniamina, might contest again. Taitai heads up the main opposition party, of which Tito is a member, while Beniamina is a former government MP but is now leader of his own party. Taitai, who was born in 1947, is of the Tabai/Tito generation whereas Beniamina, who was born in 1960, would represent a changing of the guard. This shift would be especially significant if other independence generation politicians like Tabai, Tito and Teannaki chose to step down or lost at the next election. The current Vice President, Teima Onorio, is another possibility. Hers would be a remarkable result, however, as no women has ever been elected Head of State in the independent Pacific. For this and other reasons her candidacy is unlikely.

No doubt others will emerge throughout 2015. What makes the outcome so difficult to predict, however, is that candidates and their supporters must first win their constituency seats and in a country where political parties have little bearing on voter preferences – family and church allegiances are more important – this is not an insignificant hurdle.