Tuvalu News

Political Stability Is Sopoanga's Top Priority

By Samisoni Pareti
November 2002
Pacific Magazine

When Saufatu Sopoanga singles out political stability as a priority of his government, he has no choice but to bank his career on that belief. With a mere majority of one vote that got him the top job as Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Sopoanga needs no reminding of the precariousness of his position. He should know, for the man was among those who supported a no-confidence motion that got former prime minister, Faimalaga Luka out to join the unemployment queue at Funafuti virtually overnight.

Luka was still recuperating at an Auckland hospital in December 2001 when he got news of his ousting. Eight months down the road, Sopoanga is in the office Luka once had, and it's obvious he doesn't want to end up the same way.

Relaxing at one of Fiji's luxurious resorts after a hectic Pacific Islands Forum Summit in Suva, Sopoanga was adamant his majority, though a mere one vote, was rock solid. "I feel secure even with the majority of only one seat," Tuvalu's newest prime minister told Islands Business. "That one is a very solid one indeed. This government will last the next four years." Sopoanga's confidence, perhaps, comes from his win over Luka in his country's July 25 general elections. Luka's votes of 230 was second to Sopoanga's 280.

Both men are in parliament as representatives of Nukufetau Island. Six days later, Sopoanga emerged as prime minister in a close tussle for the position in parliament. He got eight votes as opposed to the seven his rival, Amasone Kilei, secured.

Kilei now joins the opposition benches together with Luka and five others. Sopoanga, on the other hand, included in his cabinet former prime minister, Bikenibeu Paeniu, who made a successful return to Tuvalu's legislature. Paeniu becomes the new Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Industries, the portfolio Sopoanga held in the previous government of Kolotoa Talake.

Talake performed poorly in the polls, obtaining a mere 85 votes out of the 1454 cast in his constituency of Vaitupu, and consequently lost his parliamentary seat.

Other members of Sopoanga's cabinet include a political novice and former Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat expert, Maati Toafa. He is Sopoanga's deputy and looks after the Works, Communications and Transport ministries. Talake's deputy prime minister, Otinelu Tausi is now Home Affairs Minister, while Dr Alesana Seluka is the Health, Education and Sports Minister.

Samuela Teo is the Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, Energy and Tourism. Teo was Talake's Natural Resources Minister.

For someone who helped engineered the removal of Luka, Sopoanga is careful not to fall into the rut his predecessor fell into.

"The weakness of the administration that we toppled was that they were just not implementing motions that had been passed in parliament.

"This government, however, will look at implementing outstanding decisions. If we are able to do that, then I'm sure our parliament will be happy, and we will continue to work together with them."

Sopoanga, however, is not just banking on keeping MPs satisfied. He wants to go one step further.

Knowing that his slim majority can easily evaporate, the prime minister is offering an olive branch to the remaining seven opposition members of parliament through what he terms the consultation process.

"In implementing motions that have been passed by parliament, we will try and involve in our consultations the other members of parliament because they too have very important contributions to make in the development of the country.

"We will try and consult as widely with people including our colleagues on the other side of parliament."

Sopoanga also spoke on other matters affecting Tuvalu. He confirmed, for example, that his government would continue the previous administration's work on the review of the country's constitution. This will include a national referendum on the type of political leadership the people want for Tuvalu.

"We are trying to ascertain the wish of the people on the type of government that Tuvalu wants, whether they want to continue with the current Westminster model or whether they would go for a presidential system."

On the reduction of greenhouse emissions in industrialised nations:
"We will continue to make a noise at any opportunity and plead with industrialised countries to give attention for the need for them to respond to the Kyoto Protocol and reduce the amount of gas emissions their industries are producing. If they can look at alternative sources of energy, then this will be very much appreciated."

On mass evacuation out of Tuvalu into New Zealand or Australia:
"I wouldn't want to go in that direction. I think it should be left to the choice of the individual. One thing is clear though; if the industrialised countries are able to reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases they produce, then there would be no need to relocate or evacuate our people."

On the push for free trade under the Pacific Islands Trade Agreement (PICTA) and Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union:
"That is a concern of smaller islands countries like Tuvalu. If we do away with import tariff, it will greatly affect our revenue to support the national budget. The way to go around this is for smaller islands countries to be given special considerations like compensation (for the loss of tariff) or being allowed to continue to charge tariffs but not at the full economic rate, may be just half of that."

On the future of its dot TV domain:
"Since last December, the previous government decided to sell dot TV to an American company and it gave us some needed foreign exchange at the start of this year. It is going to bring Tuvalu a couple of millions of dollars and we hope this will continue."

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