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The ruling Pillars of Truth Party secured the most seats in the October 2011 parliamentary elections. The Kiribati government continued throughout the year to seek access to overseas settlements for citizens threatened by rising sea levels, as well as more foreign assistance with training and employment for its people.
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, who was elected president in 2004, immediately terminated the Chinese lease and restored diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Tong won a second four-year term in the 2007 presidential election. In the August 2007 parliamentary elections, independents took 19 seats, followed by Tong’s Pillars of Truth Party (BTK) with 18 seats and Tito’s Protect the Maneaba party with 7 seats.
Tong has vigorously called for international attention to the growing threats Kiribati faces from rising sea levels and dwindling fresh-water supplies. He has warned that relocation of the entire population might 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 March 2011, Tong declared that more coastal villages need resettlement because the sea walls are no longer sufficient to protect them, and that those who move overseas need resettlement assistance.
The government is the main employer in Kiribati, and many residents practice subsistence agriculture. The economy depends considerably on interest from a trust fund built on royalties from phosphate mining, overseas worker remittances, and foreign assistance. In 2011, New Zealand committed $23 million to help Kiribati develop its fishing industry, while Australia announced a Seasonal Worker Program to begin in July 2012 open to horticulture workers from many Pacific Islands, including Kiribati.
Parliamentary elections took place in 2011 over two rounds, on October 21 and 28. Thirty incumbents were reelected; the ruling BTK won 15 seats, with the opposition Karikirakean Tei-Kiribati (KTK) and Maurin Kiribati (MKP) parties taking 10 seats and 3 seats, respectively. Independents won the remaining seats. In November, Parliament nominated three candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, including the BTK’s Tong, Tetaua Taitai of the KTK, and Rimeta Beniamina of the MKP. Although the elections were initially scheduled for December 30, they were postponed until January 2012 to avoid low voter turnout during the holiday season.
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. The attorney general holds a seat ex officio, and the Rabi Island Council nominates one additional member. (Although Rabi Island is part of Fiji, many of its 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.
Political parties are loosely organized and generally lack fixed ideologies or formal platforms. Geography, tribal ties, and personal loyalties influence political affiliations.
Official corruption and abuse are serious problems. The number of Chinese-owned businesses has sharply increased in recent years, raising concerns over possible corruption in granting immigration status to Chinese investors and other legal wrongdoing in overseeing foreign investments. Kiribati was ranked 95 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is generally respected. There are two weekly newspapers: the state-owned Te Uekara and the privately owned Kiribati Newstar, and churches publish newsletters and periodicals. There are two radio stations and one television channel, all owned by the state. Internet access is limited outside the capital due to costs—the highest in the Pacific—and lack of infrastructure.
There have been no reports of religious oppression or restrictions on academic freedom. The expansion of access to and quality of education at all levels, however, is seriously restricted by a lack of resources. Secondary education is not available on all islands, and there is a shortage of qualified teachers.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. A number of nongovernmental organizations are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Workers have the right to organize unions, strike, and bargain collectively, though only about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized. The largest union, the Kiribati Trade Union Congress, has approximately 2,500 members.
The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. There is a high court, a court of appeal, and magistrates’ courts; final appeals go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment. Councils on some outer islands are used to adjudicate petty theft and other minor offenses.
A 260-person police force performs law enforcement and paramilitary functions. Kiribati has no military; Australia and New Zealand provide defense assistance under bilateral agreements.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, though village councils have used exile as a punishment.
Discrimination against women is common in the traditional, male-dominated culture. Sexual harassment is illegal and not reported to be widespread. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children are often associated with alcohol abuse. In response to growing domestic and international criticism for the low level of female participation in politics, the government selected 30 women to receive parliamentary training in advance of the October 2011 elections; four women won seats in Parliament in the elections.