KIRIBATI PRESIDENT A SHOO-IN FOR REELECTION

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By Teweiariki Teaero

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business, October 2007) – Kiribati goes to the polls on October 17 to elect the next Beretitenti (president) in what is being regarded as one of the most one-sided presidential contests in the nation’s history.

As President Anote Tong, of Boutokan tre Koaua Party, braces himself to contest the top job, there are also like-minded candidates contesting whom, according to him, "share the same ideals" for Kiribati.

Not only that, the candidates are members of the President’s coalition parties. They include his own finance minister Nabuti Mwemwenikarawa, of Maurin Kiribati Party; Banaban Member of Parliament, Timon Aneri of Boutokan tre Koaua Party; and Marakei’s maverick, Patrick Tatireta of Maurin Kiribati Party.

Kiribati’s first president and lone knighted citizen, Sir Ieremia Tabai, believes Mwemwenikarawa is "not regarded as a serious threat" to Tong and this coming election is "not as exciting."

The four nominations followed an overwhelming nation-wide support for Tong and the Boutokan tre Koaua Party in the general election in August and master maneuvering by Boutokan tre Koaua Party during the election of the Speaker and presidential nominations on September 17. Section 32 of the republic’s constitution allows no less than three and not more than four candidates to contest the presidency, and gives all citizens over 18 years of age the right and opportunity to vote for their president.

Strong Boutokan tre Koaua Party poll performance

Boutokan tre Koaua Party’s strength in the general election saw it receiving support from most constituencies and made President Tong "believe that I and my administration continue to have the mandate of the people" to govern for another term.

President Tong and the Boutokan tre Koaua Party are poised to sail home in a high tide victory. Results in the general election, voting for the Speaker and nominations for president attest to the popularity of Tong and Boutokan tre Koaua Party.

Tong, vice-president Teima Onorio, all ministers bar one and many Boutokan tre Koaua Party Party stalwarts like veterans and former presidents Tabai (Nonouti Island) and Teatao Teannaki (Abaiang Island), Peter Taberannang, Timeon from Tabiteuea and Tamana Island’s Kabetite Mwetaka were returned in resounding victories in the first round of elections for members of the 46-seat Mwaneaba ni Maungatabu, on August 22.

The only ministerial casualty was Martin Tofinga, of Tabiteuea Island where voters decisively returned former parliamentarian Timeon of the ruling Boutokan tre Koaua Party with 41 percent of the votes cast. They also retained Dr Tetaua Taitai of the Opposition Mwaneaban te Mauri Party with 37 percent of the votes in the first round.

Tofinga was a hard-working and most media-friendly minister in the Tong cabinet. The Boutokan tre Koaua Party will be joined by the Rabi Council of Leaders’ chairman and the newly-elected representative to the Mwaneaba ni Maungatabu, Teatu Rewi. He had informed the government through the Kiribati High Commission in Fiji that he has been mandated by the Rabi Council of Leaders to join the government of the day, unlike his controversial predecessor Teitirake Tekenimatang, who opted to join the Opposition.

Speaker

The strength of the Boutokan tre Koaua Party was further manifested during the nomination for the Speaker of parliament. The last Speaker, Etera Teangana, was a non-starter. Teangana was a nominee of the Mwaneaban te Mauri Party Party in the last parliament. He was Tito’s staunchest supporter and remained so until his early Speaker days when he infuriated Boutokan tre Koaua Party. The party took him to court over the extra-legal convening of parliament.

Boutokan tre Koaua Party won that court case and Teangana commenced his drift away from Tito.

Two September nominees for the Speaker position are closely associated with Boutokan tre Koaua Party. Taomati Iuta, nominated by Tabai, is a Tabai ally from the earlier National Progressive Party days. He was a minister in Tabai’s cabinet and vice-president under President Teannaki.

Iuta was also Boutokan tre Koaua Party’s successful nominee for Speaker two parliaments ago. Tofinga, nominated by Mwemwenikarawa, was a member of Mwaneaban te Mauri Party but later switched to Boutokan tre Koaua Party. Iuta polled 26 votes against Tofinga’s 20, thus finding himself back at Ambo as Speaker for the second time. He is expected to bring in a higher level of maturity, etiquette, eloquence and more extensive experience into the Speaker’s office than the last incumbent. In the absence of formal party structures, voting for the Speaker is traditionally used by political observers as a reliable indicator of the strength of party alliances in parliament.

Obliterating Mwaneaban te Mauri Party presidential candidates

The results of the three rounds of voting for presidential candidates further demonstrated the domination and numerical superiority of the Boutokan tre Koaua Party. It also demonstrated a master touch in strategizing, which culminated in the total obliteration of the Mwaneaban te Mauri Party stalwarts and presidential nominees Dr Harry Tong and Dr Taitai.

Anote Tong and Memwenikarawa easily captured seventeen votes each in the first round. The latter belongs to the moderate Maurin Kiribati Party but is widely associated with the Boutokan tre Koaua Party as finance minister in Tong’s last cabinet.

Political parties typically field one authentic presidential candidate and a dummy one. This serves two purposes. First, it is a strategy to exclude candidates from the opposite camps who are perceived to be perilous to chances of success in the polls. Secondly, it helps to ensure that a party’s preferred candidate’s support in the polls is not undermined. Relatively unknown candidates are therefore used as decoys. Aneri and Tatireta were being used as such. Tabai has confirmed this, stressing that they were used to nudge out doctors Tong and Taitai. In the last presidential election, Betio’s Iotebwa Redfern was President Tong’s running mate. Redfern was not seen as a threat then because he was a newcomer and his constituency had many islanders from all over Kiribati, thus eliminating the "islander" factor in voting.

Before that, Nikunau’s Beniamina Tiinga was Tito’s running mate. However, the Nikunau voters did not see beyond this strategy and voted overwhelmingly for Tiinga.

A fascinating factor in the voting for presidential candidates was the manner in which Dr Tong failed to receive any vote in the second round while his Mwaneaban te Mauri Party ally and fellow physician Taitai received one lone vote. The latter was expected to make a strong showing but, seeing the writing on the wall, pulled out in the third round. Aneri, a known Boutokan tre Koaua Party supporter nominated by Tabai, won nomination for the third spot in the second round with sixteen votes while controversial Tatireta and newcomer Taneti Mamau received fourteen votes apiece.

Tatireta eventually polled 31 votes against Mamau’s 14. The pattern of nomination and voting clearly showed the collaboration between the bigger Boutokan tre Koaua Party and its smaller coalition partner, Maurin Kiribati Party, a lack of agreement by the Mwaneaban te Mauri Party on candidates, and a subsequent relegation of Mwaneaban te Mauri Party to the political peripheries. Solidarity has been a paramount feature and strength of Boutokan tre Koaua Party.

Timeon was a conspicuous non-starter. He was expected to feature in the race, possibly on a non-Boutokan tre Koaua Party ticket. But he has shown immense maturity, long-sightedness and solidarity with Boutokan tre Koaua Party colleagues. Rumors abound that he would join the Mwaneaban te Mauri Party but these were quickly quelled by Timeon’s spokesperson who wrote that his "shift...to Tito’s party is completely not true. This is the last thing that Timeon would do considering his contributions to the Boutokan tre Koaua Party. Rumors like these are meant to destroy the party."

Timeon has proven his dependability and teamwork spirit by putting his considerable political weight behind President Tong and the Boutokan tre Koaua Party. He has thus earned a lot of respect. Many feel he is a post-Tong era presidential potential from the Boutokan tre Koaua Party camp.

What the future holds?

President Tong and the Boutokan tre Koaua Party are confident of a victory in the supreme electoral task. Tong and other Boutokan tre Koaua Party pillars like Tabai, Timeon and others have ample collective political acumen, experience and wisdom to realise that anything can happen in politics to groom younger allies and ensure Boutokan tre Koaua Party dominance.

The Mwaneaban te Mauri Party needs to re-think many of their policies and strategies given their heavy losses in August and September.

Dr Tong and Tito had to go into the second round of voting to retain their seats in August. Admittedly, they ran a very tough race competing against some formidable opponents in the largest pool of candidates in the mixed-islander constituency of urban Tarawa. Their struggles and defeats in the polls were indicative of the party’s waning support at the national level. Tabai estimates that Mwaneaban te Mauri Party Party has "between 12 and 14 members, Boutokan tre Koaua Party has 28 and Maurin Kiribati Party has 5."

Looking forward, President Tong wrote that the "ever increasing population especially of the young people remains the major challenge in terms of identifying employment and income generating opportunities for our people.

"Our efforts to address these challenges are not made any easier by our isolation and extreme fragmentation, especially in the face of escalating fuel prices."

On previous policies and performance, President Tong wrote that he "can say with absolute confidence that the path we have followed has been rational and has delivered the best results for the nation under the existing circumstances".

He was guarded, however, about divulging the nature and directions of his new policies but indicated that "I can assure you that it is more likely to be rational rather than radical". However, Tabai believes important issues to be considered in the next term include the management of government finances, rural development, agricultural development and overseas employment—issues yet to be officially discussed by Boutokan tre Koaua Party.

This election will, sadly, not provide people with distinct and viable choices. All four candidates are members of the Boutokan tre Koaua Party-Maurin Kiribati Party coalition. As such, they are likely to espouse similar policies. Mwaneaban te Mauri Party candidates would have provided alternative policy choices for electors.

President Tong has defended the political manoeuvring of the Boutokan tre Koaua Party-Maurin Kiribati Party as being done "in accordance with the law which was amended in 2002" and was "legal and democratic."

However, in admitting his part in the demise of the Mwaneaban te Mauri Party’s doctors Tong and Taitai, Tabai wondered "if this was good in the long-term interests of the country."

The shadows of former presidents Tabai and Tito will continue to lurk in politics in Kiribati. Tito’s strengths in oratory, strategizing and popularity on urban Tarawa will render him an asset to the Mwaneaban te Mauri Party. Tabai, on the other hand, will continue to provide Boutokan tre Koaua Party with a sense of sobering maturity, continuity, statesmanship, political wisdom and international integrity. He will not fear to drum home hard realities when needed and will continue to exert critical influence even from the backbench.

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