Stewart Firth – Nauru: The Retreat from Democracy and the Coming Election

This is a guest post by Stewart Firth, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Since the election of Nauru’s latest President, Baron Waqa, in 2013, democracy and the rule of law in that country have been under threat. The new government moved quickly to remove key members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, who was not permitted to re-enter the country after foreign travel. A crackdown on media freedom followed, with foreign journalists effectively excluded by a prohibitive visa fee of US$5,000, and a ban placed on Facebook in order to check criticism of the government. An amendment to the criminal code in 2015 makes the expression of ‘political hatred’, that is to say, disagreement with the government, an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

As previously reported on Presidential Power, three opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament for ‘talking too much to foreign media’ and bringing their country into disrepute. Since then a further two opposition MPs in the Parliament of 19 have been permanently suspended, leaving a rump of 12 to conduct Nauru’s business. As the 2016 election approaches, the Nauru government is using Parliament to suppress candidature: public servants must now resign three months before the election, and the fee for standing as a candidate has jumped from US$74 to US$1,500.

This creeping authoritarianism has little to do, however, with the institution of the Presidency in Nauru. The Nauru Presidency is a Westminster phenomenon, and the President resembles a prime minister. Under Article 16, 2 of the Nauru constitution, ‘A person is not qualified to be elected President unless he is a member of Parliament.’ Parliament elects the President of Nauru after each election, he or she sits in a Cabinet that is formed from Parliament and is collectively responsible to it, and may be removed along with other ministers on a vote of no confidence.

What has mattered in recent years in Nauru has been the Cabinet, not the President. In fact most observers think the author of Nauru’s retreat from democracy is not President Waqa but instead his Justice Minister David Adeang. Nauru hosts Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre, and Adeang has seized the opportunity created by Australia’s dependence on his country to amass power and suppress dissent, secure in the knowledge that Canberra will offer little criticism. New Zealand has suspended much of its aid to Nauru in protest. Australia has not.

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