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.