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Viewpoint: Tong banks on his record to get him top job again in Kiribati

Islands Business - Teweiariki Teaero*
As expected, President Anote Tong (59 years, economist) of the ruling Boutokan te Koaua Party (BTK) is running for his third and last term for the presidency against Opposition Party candidates Dr. Tetaua Taitai (58, medical doctor) from Karikirakean te I-Kiribati Party (KTIKP) and Rimeta Tiinga (50, fisheries) of Maurin Kiribati Party (MKP) in a nation-wide election scheduled for 30 December.

Ieremia Tabai, the chairperson of BTK, had nominated Anote Tong and Timon Aneri for the presidency. Dr. Tetaua Taitai and Inatio Tanentoa were nominated by the chairperson of the KTIKP, Tetabo Nakara. Rimeta Tiinga, who was the leader of the opposition KTIKP until 20 November, had been invited by MKP’s chairperson Nabuti Mwemwenikarawa to be their candidate.

Seeing that there were more than four candidates and not wanting to split votes with the main contenders, ‘dummy’ candidates Aneri and Tanentoa quickly withdrew. Historically, dummy candidates are used at this stage to nudge out opponents. This time, the three way split was a cause of concern for party leaders who appeared unsure whether they had the numbers on the floor to carry their candidates through the nomination stage. The voluntary withdrawal of dummy candidates ensured that all three principal candidates stayed within the constitutional limits (not less than 3 and not more than 4) and went directly to the electorate.

Beniamina had earlier been nudged out of the KTIKP leadership 7-11 in what Nakara told Radio Kiribati was a democratic vote in favour of Dr. Taitai. Taitai is from Tabiteuea, the biggest island in the Gilberts Group with the biggest number of people spread on the island itself and other islands.

Both he and BTK potential presidential candidate Taberannang Timeon are from the same island. BTK is expected to push the Timeon card after Tong has served his constitutional limits of three terms. Timeon might even be made Kauoman ni Beretitenti (Vice President) if Tong is voted back in. Dr. Taitai’s nomination for President at this stage is widely understood as KTIKP’s strategy for a pooling of the massive Tabiteuea votes in his favour and KTIKP’s preemptive move against Timeon for his anticipated emergence in the near future. This is in addition to Taitai’s own merits.

Tug of war in the Opposition camp
KTIKP and MKP comprise a formidable Opposition but each is battling hard to gain recognition as the preferred Opposition Party during the presidential election scheduled for 30 December. In a country whose Constitution does not officially recognise the Opposition party, KTIKP is the leading Opposition party by virtue of its bigger members. Both parties possess enough talents and quality collective experience within their ranks to seriously challenge the ruling BTK who have in their ranks two former presidents, one sitting president and the oldest and longest serving member.

The key factor that is fuelling the duel between KTIKP and MKP is the two-party Opposition itself. This split is playing right into the hands of BTK, a factor recognized at the outset by the party’s principal strategist, Tabai, who told Islands Business that “if the Opposition is split, they will split their supporters’ votes and that is good for us at the ballot box.”

Beniamina is luring KTIKP supporters’ votes by claiming during the candidates’ debate, personal visits, interviews and in local media outlets that he will combine the key ideas from KTIKP and MKP in his new party’s platform. While MKP recognizes the role of KTIKP as the leading Opposition party, MKP has claimed in its radio campaigns that it is the party “that will lead Kiribati to the real and new change.” This is premised on the fact that KTIKP was in power as Mwaneaban te Mauri under President Tito, now a senior and very influential member of the party. BTK has been in power for 8 years under President Tong.

A war of words erupted between KTIKP and MKP immediately on nomination day, beginning with accusations of betrayal in the secret ballot voting for the Speaker. Taomati Iuta was expected to be voted out as part of the change agenda that began with the ousting of many BTK supporters in the general elections. Iuta’s loss looked certain given that MKP had 12 members and KTIKP had 15 against the BTK’s 16.

Even if the 3 independent MPs voted for Iuta and both KTIKP and MKP members all voted for Tetabea, BTK’s candidate would still lose. It was apparent from the results that several Opposition members had cast their votes against their nominee, culminating in a clear 28-18 victory for Iuta who appeared stunned by his return to the position. He had to compose himself before he took the oath of office. Observers had noted that while the two candidates had been MPs and Ministers previously within their respective parties and had their share of controversies, 72-year-old Iuta was a better choice. That explained in part why several Opposition members voted with their conscience rather than along party lines.

KTIKP is attempting to portray Beniamina as a party deserter and a “poor loser” after he “left” the party to join the other Opposition party, MKP. KTIKP is also claiming that MKP and Beniamina are part of Government, citing the voting pattern for the Speaker earlier. Beniamina refuted this, claiming that he was invited by MKP and that his new role at MKP would provide an opportunity for him to pursue many of his ideals and those of the combined Opposition. He stressed the point that he and MKP have no links with BTK.

The issues
It was obvious from the last election that the people want change. The idea of change, understandably, is at the forefront of the three parties’ campaigns but each party is casting it to its own advantage.

MKP and KTIKP are advocating for change of Government because of what they claimed were poor policy decisions and performances that fell short of the people’s expectations. BTK, on the other hand, is telling the electorate that the policies over the last eight years have brought many good things to the people.
Tong claimed during the candidates’ debate that the people have enjoyed development and improvements in their livelihoods during his term. He said that the Opposition parties’ sole aim during the quest for change is the overthrow of the current government “because they do not like those who are on the chair.”

Tong posed the questions: “Change for what, for more improvements or for something that you do not know and which could bring possible danger? There is really no desire to improve the status quo except the desire to get rid of this Government.” The focus of BTK’s campaign on change, according to Tabai, is on “better implementation and communication of the work that has already been done by Government.”

Tabai said that if Tong is reelected, there is likely to be no major change in policy. “I do not expect major changes in the policies,” Tabai told Islands business. “Overall the policies have been sound but the Party may have to look at other areas to ensure that the immediate concerns of the people are addressed. However, the challenges facing the country are big and must be acknowledged. The areas that need addressing include such areas as education, health and sanitation, inadequate infrastructure, and high population growth to mention a few. These problems are reflected in the extent of hardship now faced by many people and seen in the country.” Tong is staking his chances on his record as president over the last eight years.

Beniamina told Islands Business that MKP is pushing for change that is based on promoting good governance and improving Government revenue. In a video-taped debate between candidates in which KTIKP’s Dr. Taitai’s absence was conspicuous and questioned by the other two candidates, Beniamina said that “there has been too much corruption and the time has come to eliminate it. MKP will focus on the elimination of corruption.” Tong countered this by saying that these have been adequately covered in parliament and are now being used as mere tactics to blur the people’s vision and distract voters during the forthcoming presidential election.

In his radio address to the nation on his party’s platform, Dr. Taitai pointed out that there are two major issues confronting the country. These are the Government’s inability to generate much income and poor decision-making by the Government. He also listed corruption as a major issue.

The main issues that are being debated include the improper issuing of passports to some Chinese businessmen, imprudent use of public funds, improper release of detained foreign fishing boats, compensation money for those injured during their term of employment on Banaba, investments by foreigners and offshore investments. The others are tired issues that have appeared in many previous elections like improving the provision of basic foodstuff like rice, flour and sugar, improving transport and communications, providing assistance for schools, improving infrastructure and rural development.

There were canoe-loads of promises. KTIKP, for example, listed 27 commitments that KTIKP would do for the people. Many of which have all been heard in the past. These include salaries of civil servants, lease money, support grants to island councils, copra and seaweed prices to be increased to $1 per kilogram; providing fees for all tertiary students, eliminating corruption, reducing fuel prices, reviewing living allowances for the elderly, improving transport and communications, mining the country’s seabed, encouraging foreign companies to invest here and better policing of the country’s huge EEZ.

A retired civil servant living on South Tarawa, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he was very impressed with the many exciting and attractive promises being made by the three parties but “very skeptical and worried about how they will be able to fund these promises. They have many proposals for generating income that will fund these but these projects will take years before they can start bringing in money – if at all!”

There are three major contrasts among the parties. On higher education, BTK is promising to increase and improve the presence of USP on Tarawa by working with the university to provide more land and better facilities. KTIKP, on the other hand, is looking at setting up a national university. MKP prefers “twinning arrangements” with overseas tertiary institutions.

The presence of some Chinese nationals in the country is a contentious issue. There are allegations by one party on the improper participation of mainland China in local politics. The improper issuance of business permits and passports to the Chinese continue to be on the debate. One party is claiming a lack of connections with either mainland China or Taiwan.

On generating income, MKP is considering introducing a consumption tax while KTIKP is talking about a general services tax. BTK is silent on tax, except to say that when some Government companies are sold to private operators, Government will get its share from these companies’ taxes.

Certainties and similarities
All parties agree that Taiwan will remain despite Tong’s insistence that one Opposition party has links with mainland China. Beniamina said that “Taiwan will remain as it is seen to be doing well.” Dr. Taitai from KTIKP stated in his radio broadcast that the dismissal of Taiwan is not even on his party’s platform. Mainland China enjoyed relationships with Kiribati under President Tito of Mwaneaban te Mauri, one of the forerunners of KTIKP, and was replaced by Taiwan under President Tong of BTK. MKP claims a lack of connection with either

Taiwan or mainland China.
In addition, Fiji and regionalism will be supported. Tong is already known as a verbal supporter of Fiji’s return to the Pacific Forum. Dr. Taitai continues to harbor positive sentiments about Fiji after his long and ground-breaking tenure as Kiribati’s High Commissioner to Fiji. Beniamina assured Islands Business that “We must go with the region. If this region believes that this is the way to handle Fiji, we will follow.”

The reserve fund, for which Kiribati is famous, will continue to be used for various reasons and to different extents by all three parties. President Tong is reported to have withdrawn over $200 million over the last eight years. None of the three candidates have made commitments not to touch it. Foreign investments will be encouraged and Kiribati will take a more dynamic approach towards improving its income-generation capacities – both in-country and offshore - and the provision of support for educational opportunities at different levels. All three parties are showing significant increases in the recognition of the hitherto marginalized groups like pre-schoolers and disabled.

All parties will provide more direct support for the different Churches that are currently registered in Kiribati with the exception of the Mormon Church which has declined this assistance. MKP intends to set up a trust fund from the reserve fund specifically apportioned for the different Churches under guidelines from the Government. Each Church will be entitled to use 50% of the trust fund’s interest for its own purposes. KTIKP is intending to pass laws to enable portions of civil servants’ salaries to be allocated to their respective Church accounts. Meanwhile, BTK has been providing assistance in terms of grant in aid for teachers and portions of fees for students in Church schools. In the final analysis, it will be interesting to note how Kiribati lives out the principle of the separation of Church and State as practiced in some democratic countries.

There are some exciting initiatives, particularly the establishment of offshore investment ventures by the country, major partnerships with overseas investors and the big jump into the harvesting of the country’s own fish by its own purse seiners.

What does it all mean for Kiribati?
First, it is obvious that it is politics as usual for the people. As usual, the dry country is experiencing downpours of promises from all three parties and leaders. The costs of these promises will run into scores of millions of dollars. The candidates and parties are assuring the people that these promises will be financed from the reserve fund and their many proposed developments like a fleet of purse seiners, seabed mining and new taxes. However, as one observer noted, these are mere proposals at this stage and he would have been more comfortable seeing these ideas bringing in income before the promises are made. While the promises can be financed from the reserve fund, the question of sustainability in the long term will remain a sore thumb.

There are three clear candidates for the presidency, unlike previous elections where there were two principal candidates and two ‘dummy’ candidates and the 2007 “boring” election where there were only two candidates who were from the same coalition, with Tong being the foregone winner over Mwemwenikarawa. This time, the vote will be split three ways. The ultimate winner may not even command the support of the majority of the voters.

Judging from the 28 MPs who voted for the BTK’s candidate for Speaker against the 18 who voted for the Opposition’s candidate, BTK and its allies have the numerical superiority in parliament. If this alignment remains intact, it will make governing easier for BTK if Anote Tong gets voted in as President by the people of Kiribati on 30th December in the first-past-the-post presidential election.

Dependence and ‘aiddiction’ will continue to afflict the country as all three candidates directly or indirectly alluded to the continuing use of aid. Kiribati will continue to depend heavily on traditional aid donors and, hopefully, new ones too to boost withdrawals from the reserve fund to balance the books

The majority of the promises are not conducive to the promotion of self-reliance. Instead, they appear to be perpetuating the practice of the Government providing all for the people. MKP, for example, is proposing a stimulus plan which will see Government paying people to plant coconut trees on their lands and other people’s lands because, in the words of the chairperson Mwemwenikarawa, “what is happening now is that there are too many owners of lands and no one is willing to plant trees on any of these plots. It is better to pay people to plant and the owners will derive benefits later on.”
MKP and KTIKP are blowing the “righting wrongs” tune to the public. There are two glaring examples of this. First, both parties want the Government to pay compensation money to all those who worked on Banaba while the Government is saying that it is compensation money earmarked exclusively for those people who were injured during their employment on the island. Second, both parties want to address the grievances of those whose employments were terminated under the current Government. The latter are reminiscent of Tito’s policies.

The move to provide assistance to the disabled is worth noting. While the cash handouts in the mould of senior citizens’ allowances will be attractive in the short term, this will be shallow in the long term. It is better to provide access for these people to quality educational opportunities and care and, ultimately, employment opportunities. This approach will be good for the dignity of the people concerned, the economy of the country and sustainability. Tekamangu Bwauira, chairperson of the Toamatoa (disabled persons’ association), has confirmed that they want to earn their worth with dignity. Teewata Rokete from the same organization appreciates assistance for members who are disabled beyond employment.

Corruption is a dominant issue in this election. Clearly, Kiribati needs to establish firmer mechanisms for effectively eliminating corruption to complement existing procedures. Corruption has been raised in past campaigns, with parties promising to tackle the problem. The country needs to move positively beyond rhetoric in this matter.

The biggest cross-cutting contemporary challenge confronting Kiribati is the comparatively big population and its very high urbanisation rate. Kiribati reached the 103,071 mark in the 2010 population census, with 49% of this figure residing on South Tarawa. The size of the population - increasing at about 1,000 each year - and the high urban density are stretching resources and services to breaking point. All leaders need to put more emphasis on this in ways that accommodate the different Churches’ positions.
There will be no significant change in the country’s foreign and regional policy – except perhaps for the nation’s relations with the region’s most successful collaboration, USP, if KTIKP’s idea of a national university sees the light of day. The assurance of relationships with Taiwan appears secured
The promises offered by the three parties are very appealing but they do not appear sustainable. Nevertheless, people will have the opportunity, one that is unique to the I-Kiribati, to directly elect as President the candidate whose party’s promises attract them the most.

•The author is a Kiribati national and a senior lecturer at USP. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not those of the university where he teaches.

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