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The Republic of Kiribati has been a parliamentary democracy since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1979. It consists of 33 islands of the Gilbert, Line, and Phoenix groups, with a combined land area of 324 square miles, scattered across 1.4 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the western Pacific. The atoll of Tarawa, now the national capital, was the scene of a bloody battle between U.S. marines and occupying Japanese forces during World War II.
The current president, Teburoro Tito, won a second four-year term in 1998, defeating opposition candidates Harry Tong and Amberoti Nikora. His first election victory, in 1994, followed a constitutional crisis that broke out after police forcibly sacked acting head of state Tekira Tameura, who had taken office following the resignation of President Tetao Teannaki. Tameura had assumed power under a constitutional provision that temporarily vests key executive powers in the chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC) if the president resigns. The problem was that many claimed that Tameura's tenure as PSC head had expired, and the constitution said nothing about what happens when the PSC chairmanship is vacant.
Tito faces a tough fight for reelection in February 2003. More than half of the lawmakers who supported him were voted out of office in the November 29, 2002, parliamentary elections following a campaign that centered on China's influence in Kiribati. At year's end, the informal Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) political faction that opposes Tito had not decided on a candidate to challenge the president. There was speculation that the BTK would dump former presidential candidate Tong as its leader and nominate someone else for the top post. Under Kiribati law, parliament chooses, from within its ranks, three or four presidential candidates, who then square off in a general election.
Should the BTK capture the presidency, it will likely review a 15-year deal that allows China to operate a satellite tracking facility on Tarawa. China's influence became a key issue in the parliamentary elections after Tong tried unsuccessfully to get President Tito to release details of the tracking facility deal and the Chinese ambassador acknowledged making a donation to a government-linked cooperative society. Beijing says that the tracking facility is part of its civilian space program, but some claim it is used to monitor U.S. missile tests in the Pacific. Chinese ambassador Ma Shuxue, meanwhile, defended the donation of roughly US$2,850 to an association linked to President Tito, saying that all of the money was tied to specific projects.
The parliamentary campaign turned particularly bitter after Tito ordered police to seize thousands of Tong's pamphlets because they supposedly violated the law by carrying an emblem of the Kiribati flag.
Kiribati's single-chamber parliament, known as the Maneaba ni Maungatabu, has 39 members who are directly elected for four-year terms, one lawmaker who represents former Banaba islanders now living in Fiji, and the attorney general, ex officio. The Banaba Island representative is elected from Fiji because the island's residents were forced to move there after phosphate mining under British rule left Banaba Island uninhabitable. The constitution vests executive powers in a president, who is limited to serving three fouryear terms.
Kiribati's judiciary is independent, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Litigants may appeal to the Privy Council in London. Village councils on rare occasions have punished wrongdoers by forcibly exiling them from villages, the State Department report said.
The government owns Kiribati's sole radio station and one of its two newspapers. The opposition claimed that it had little access to Radio Kiribati and the government's Te Uekera weekly during the 2002 election campaign. Government opponents and others also criticized a 2002 amendment to a press law that allows authorities to close papers if there are complaints against them. The law, the Newspaper Registration Act, also contains restrictions on printing offensive material that are vaguely worded and sets a low standard for allowing officials to censor articles that could incite or encourage crime or disorder.
Kiribati's only private newspaper is owned by Ieremia Tabai, a former president and current opposition member of parliament. Tabai launched the Kiribati Newstar after the government blocked his efforts to set up the country's first independent radio station in 1999 by closing the station and fining him for attempting to import broadcasting equipment without a license. In a positive development, Tabai said in December that his station would begin broadcasting in January 2003 after receiving an FM license following a four-year battle to get one. In addition to these formal media, several newsletters and other periodicals are put out by churches.
Women are slowly but steadily entering the workforce in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, thanks in part to stepped-up government hiring and promotion of female employees. Kiribati's traditional culture of male dominance, however, has made it tough for women to play more active roles in the economy. Throughout the country, spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women, often alcohol-related, are "a significant problem," according to the U.S. State Department report.
Kiribati's trade union sector is small but vigorous. Only about 10 percent of wage earners, however, belong to unions. The largest is the Kiribati Trade Union Congress, with about 2,500 members. Strikes are legal but rare. Overall, around 90 percent of workers are fishermen or subsistence farmers.