Tuvalu Braces for a Possible Government Change
Pacific Magazine, April
By Samisoni Pareti
Tiny Tuvalu is bracing for a possible change in government with two
by-elections scheduled early next month. The by-elections became
necessary after Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga’s majority in parliament
evaporated when he lost two of his supporters in February.
Government MP Sio Patale lost his seat at Nanumea when Tuvalu’s Chief
Justice declared his election unconstitutional. The court heard that
Patale’s nomination papers were submitted late and as such, he should
not have stood in the election in the first place. In that July 25, 2002
polls, Patale polled the largest number of votes in the Nanumea
constituency; 332 as opposed to 309 votes polled by his nearest rival,
Lagitupu Tuilimu. Tuilimu who was finance minister in a previous
government lost his seat in the poll and it was him who filed for a
judicial review in Tuvalu’s Supreme Court. When Sopoanga came to power
in August last year, he has been ruling with the narrowest of majority:
eight MPs to the Opposition’s seven. With Patale’s election ruled
unconstitutional and his seat declared vacant, that majority evaporated.
With Sopoanga’s power base in parliament reduced and shaky, his
government suffered another blow with the untimely death of another of
its members: parliamentary speaker Saloa Tauia, who died at the Suva
Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Fiji, on February 27.
Under Tuvalu’s constitution, parliament cannot convene with two vacant
seats. By-elections have to be organised first, so a confidence motion
against Sopoanga’s minority government will not be entertained until
parliament convenes after the May 9 by-elections for a seat each in
Nanumea and Niutao constituencies.
Supervisor of Elections Bill Teo told Islands Business from Funafuti
that nomination for candidates was open, and candidates could register
their intention to contest the seats any time until the closure of
nomination on April 25. Voting for both constituencies is scheduled for
one day and the results should be declared late the same day.
Sensing a chance to make another bid for leadership, the seven MPs who
had loosely grouped themselves as the Opposition in parliament hit the
campaign trail almost immediately. By late last month, four of the seven
parliamentarians were out in the islands, canvassing support. These
included Amasone Kilei, who in the contest for prime ministership last
August lost out to Sopoanga by a mere one vote. Whether Kilei will again
be the opposition’s candidate remains to be seen.
Islands Business does know of others in the group who would gladly take
up the challenge to bid for the top post. One-time prime minister
Faimalaga Luka will definitely go for the top position if given the
greenlight by his fellow opposition MPs. Contacted at his Funafuti home,
Luka says the group has yet to decide on its candidate to contest the
position of PM. Priority, of course, is fielding two strong candidates
in the by-elections. Once they get the numbers, toppling Sopoanga should
be easy, he said.
Luka did say that a number of his colleagues and supporters have been
urging him to try once more for the position of PM. He became leader of
Tuvalu when the late Ionatana Ionatana died in 2001. But he lost the job
not long after that through a vote of no confidence motion in
parliament. A number of his ministers crossed the floor and sided with
the opposition while he was undergoing urgent medical treatment in New
Zealand. Another seasoned politician Kolotoa Talake became prime
minister. But Talake lost miserably in the last July general election
and did not retain his parliamentary seat.
After five governments in five years, observers said Sopoanga became the
much-needed stabilising influence. In his first public interview after
becoming prime minister, the former finance minister did express the
wish to serve the full four years in office.
"I believe the current PM is well respected and held in high esteem by a
majority. In light of the upcoming by-elections, however, the
re-election odds may not be in his favour given the shifting sands of
politics. Time will tell," an observer told Islands Business.
In recent months, Sopoanga has been working hard to consolidate the
financial position of his government. When his government came out with
its first budget last December, the prime minister lamented the poor
state of public finances brought about mainly by falling fishing license
fees and unfavourable returns from the country’s trust fund.
"2003 will be a year of great challenge that requires prudent financial
management on the part of all stakeholders in Tuvalu," Sopoanga had