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A report released in February 2010 by an independent commission from New Zealand found that the Kiribati government did not have sufficient resources to adequately respond to a July 2009 ferry accident that killed 35 people. In November, President Anote Tong hosted an international conference on the rising sea levels that continue to threaten Kiribati’s existence.
Kiribati gained independence from Britain in 1979. The country consists of 33 atolls scattered across nearly 1.5 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the western Pacific.
Chinese military ambitions in the Pacific and competing offers of development assistance from China and Taiwan have been major issues in Kiribati politics. President Teburoro Tito’s refusal to release details about a 15-year land lease to China for a satellite-tracking facility led to the collapse of his government in 2003. Opposition leader Anote Tong was elected in 2004 to replace Tito, and he immediately terminated the Chinese lease and restored ties with Taiwan.
In the August 2007 parliamentary elections, independents took 19 seats, followed by Tong’s Pillars of Truth party with 18 seats and Tito’s Protect the Maneaba party with 7 seats. Tong secured a second four-year term in the October 2007 presidential election.
Tong has vigorously called for international attention to the growing threats his country faces from rising sea levels and dwindling fresh-water supplies. He has warned that relocation of the entire population may be necessary if ongoing climate change makes inundation inevitable. New Zealand has pledged to accept environmental refugees from Kiribati, and some have already moved there. In November 2010, Tong’s government hosted the Tarawa Climate Change Conference, which brought together nations threatened by rising sea levels and major economic powers—including China—to jointly call for immediate action at the United Nations.
The government is the main employer, and many residents practice subsistence agriculture. The economy depends considerably on foreign assistance and overseas worker remittances, and the state generates a small sum from selling licenses to foreign fishing fleets. Interest from a trust fund built on royalties from phosphate mining has balanced the national budget and kept the country debt free. Nevertheless, an Asian Development Bank report released in December 2010 warned that Kiribati was facing serious pressure on its national budget due to poor trust-fund performance in recent years and a reduction in remittances due to economic troubles abroad.
Government performance fell under scrutiny in February 2010, when New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission released a report into a July 2009 ferry accident off Maiana Island that killed 35 people. The investigation found that the Kiribati government had no search-and-rescue plan in place and lacked sufficient resources to adequately respond to the accident.
Kiribati is an electoral democracy. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process whereby Parliament nominates candidates from its own ranks and voters then choose one to be president. Forty-four representatives are popularly elected to the unicameral House of Parliament for four-year terms.One additional member is nominated by the Rabi Island Council, and the attorney general holds a seat ex officio. (Although Rabi Island is part of Fiji, many residents were originally from Kiribati’s Banaba Island. British authorities forced them to move to Rabi when phosphate mining made Banaba uninhabitable.) The president, vested with executive authority by the constitution, is limited to three four-year terms.