Tuvalu News

Tuvalu Braces for a Possible Government Change
Pacific Magazine, April 2003

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 warned then.

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