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Personalities to dominate South Pacific elections in 2016

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Foreign Minister Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands attends a meeting during the COP21 climate change conference in France, on Dec. 11.   © Reuters

AUCKLAND, New Zealand   Local matters and the personal appeal of candidates are the defining issues for upcoming political contests in the South Pacific, where four countries will hold elections in 2016. Scheduled votes will take place in Kiribati, Nauru and Samoa, while Vanuatu is holding a snap poll.

     While they are a small presence on the world stage, low-lying Pacific island states have made international alliances on climate change, fighting for tighter rules on carbon emissions. They were instrumental in drafting some of the wording in the final declaration of the U.N. climate conference in Paris in December, particularly on the need to "pursue efforts" to limit the global rise in temperatures to less than 1.5 C.

     However, Tess Newton Cain, founder of the Devpacific Thinknet think tank in Port Vila, Vanuatu, said international issues seldom featured in recent Pacific elections. "It remains the case that people are elected on the basis of their perceived ability to look after voters in a very localized and personal way," she said.

     Newton Cain cited the Nov. 16 Marshall Islands election, in which Foreign Minister Tony de Brum lost his seat, although he represented his country at the Paris talks. Newton Cain said de Brum's high international profile might have cost him his seat. "I can't help feeling that ... he is seen to be too focused on global issues by voters," she said. On Jan. 4, parliament narrowly elected Casten Nemra, 44, as president, defeating seven-term parliamentary veteran Alvin Jacklick, 66. Nemra, a first-term legislator, has been the country's top civil servant for eight years. 

     Kiribati President Anote Tong, who also had a high profile role in Paris, must step down after three terms in office. An election to replace him is scheduled for Jan. 30. Fisheries Minister Tinian Reiher is tipped as the front-runner. The president's son, Vincent Tong, polled poorly in a parliamentary election in December and failed to take his father's seat. 

     Vanuatu will go the polls on Jan. 22, following the dissolution of parliament by President Baldwin Lonsdale in the wake of the conviction of 14 of 33 members for corruption. The country's supreme court ruled on Dec. 16 that the president's action was legal, rejecting moves by the opposition to block the election.

     Newton Cain said the jailing of key parliamentary figures could lead to the biggest political shake-up since independence in 1980, possibly involving new political parties and a wave of fresh candidates.

     Samoa will vote on March 4, with 70-year-old Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele a reasonable bet to retain the office he has held since 1998. Tuilaepa has courted controversy with comments on issues ranging from rugby and beauty contests to government debt. However, his Human Rights Protection Party is the country's only effective political party. The electoral system is considered fairly democratic, with universal suffrage and elections held every five years. However, 47 of the 49 parliamentary seats are reserved for matai-- chiefs or traditional heads of families.

     Nauru will vote in June. No formal political parties exist, but its 19-seat parliament is divided on clan lines. Several opposition members have recently been arrested and accused of rioting, while the passport of another has been confiscated. New Zealand has cut some aid to Nauru, citing concerns about civil rights abuses. The country has only one significant source of revenue: a large Australian immigration detention center in the middle of the island.

INSIDERS OUT, OUTSIDERS IN?   Sean Dorney, a Melanesia program fellow at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, said voters were likely to be keen to give their verdict on the immigration center.

     "The election should be an interesting test of how much public support the man who currently seems to hold the reins of power, [Justice Minister] David Adeang, really has," Dorney said. "Adeang had a falling out some years ago with some of Nauru's most capable politicians and he's been conducting a vendetta against them ever since."

     The only election in the region with significant foreign policy implications is not even a national contest. In an Aug. 27 poll in Australia's Northern Territory, a key issue will be the territorial government's decision to lease the port of Darwin for 99 years to Landbridge, a Chinese company owned by billionaire Ye Cheng.

     The federal government is reviewing its rules on the sale of strategic assets following claims that Landbridge has links with the Chinese Communist Party. U.S. President Barack Obama has chided Canberra for not informing Washington in advance about the deal. U.S. troops rotate through Darwin regularly under an arrangement with Australia.

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