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Tuvalu is a parliamentary democracy consisting of nine tiny, remote, low-lying atolls spread across 350 miles of the South Pacific north of New Zealand. The population is mainly Polynesian, with a Micronesian minority. Named the Ellice Islands by an American ship captain in 1819, the nine islands were administered by Britain as a protectorate between 1892 and 1914 and then as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony between 1915 and 1971. During World War II, U.S. forces built an airstrip in the capital of Funafuti that today is used by the handful of commercial flights that serve the country each week. The Ellice Islands gained full independence as Tuvalu in 1978, while the Gilberts today are the independent state of Kiribati. The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is Tuvalu's head of state and is represented by a governor-general, currently Sir Tomasi Puapua.
The current prime minister, Saufatu Sopoaga, is the fourth man to hold Tuvalu's top post in two years. Hailing from Nukufetau island, the former finance minister narrowly defeated Amasone Kilei in a parliamentary leadership vote following the July 25, 2002, general elections. The incumbent, Kolou Telake, failed to win a seat. Telake was in office for barely half a year, having become prime minister in December 2001 after his predecessor, Faimalaga Luka, was ousted in a no-confidence vote. Luka, in turn, had become prime minister only in February of that year after the sudden death in office of Ionatana Ionatana.
The country's history of frequent leadership changes has fueled a debate during the past decade over whether Tuvalu should amend its constitution to allow citizens to directly elect a national leader. Prime Minister Sopoaga said after taking office that a republican government would provide greater political stability. To this end, the new government launched a series of civic education radio programs as a first step towards a possible referendum on leaving the Commonwealth and adopting an elected head of state.
The tropical islands' Elsyian beauty belies the severe lifestyles of many Tuvaluans. Nearly two-thirds are subsistence farmers, and increasing salination of the soil is making this rugged livelihood even harder.
Copra, dried coconut meat, is Tuvalu's only real export, although the country also earns foreign exchange from sales of coins and stamps, money sent home by islanders working abroad, and tuna fishing licenses granted to foreign ships. The country also reaps royalties by leasing its international dialing code and by leasing Tuvalu's Internet domain name--.tv--to a California firm in 2000 for $50 million over 12 years. Some of the money has already been used to pave roads and build schools. The government also gets around 10 percent of its annual budget from a well-run overseas investment trust fund set up by donors in 1987.
Successive governments have warned that the low-slung islands could lose critical underground water tables or even be completely submerged should global warming raise sea levels. Tuvalu several years ago asked Australia to agree to take in its entire population in the event the islands are flooded, but Canberra refused.
Citizens of Tuvalu can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. Parliament's 15 members are directly elected for 4-year terms. Each of Tuvalu's nine atolls also has a six-person local council that is directly elected for a four-year term. Political parties are legal, although none exist. Instead, politics tends to be based on personal and family ties and on reputation and experience.
Tuvalu's common law judiciary is independent, and citizens generally receive fair trials, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002.
Tuvalu's media are state owned and provide balanced news coverage. They include Radio Tuvalu, the fortnightly Tuvalu Echoes newspaper, and a television station that broadcasts for a few hours each day. Many Tuvaluans also pull in foreign television broadcasts on satellite dishes.
Women increasingly work in health care and education, but in general their job opportunities are limited by both cultural norms and the tiny size of the economy. Religious freedom generally is respected in this mainly Christian society.
Tuvaluans are free to form unions, although organized labor plays a limited role in this largely subsistence economy. The sole trade union is the Tuvalu Seaman's Union, whose roughly 600 members work on foreign merchant ships. Most Tuvaluans who earn regular wages or salaries within the country work for the government, and the fewer than 1,000 nurses, teachers, and civil servants employed by the state have formed associations that are similar to unions. Workers can bargain collectively, although in practice private employers generally set wages unilaterally. Labor disputes generally are resolved through nonconfrontational bargaining in local meeting halls rather than through formal legal procedures.