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Politics of Nauru

Written by Frank Pobutkiewicz

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December 16, 2019


Politics of Nauru

The government of Nauru is a parliamentary system with elements of a presidential system19, in that Nauru’s President, with powers normally found in a presidential system, is elected from among the Parliament and also has many powers of Prime Ministers in parliamentary systems. The minimum voting age is 20 and is compulsory. 

The government of Nauru also consists of a separate judicial branch, which consists of a Supreme Court that is paramount on constitutional issues, a two-judge Appellate Court from which cases can be further appealed to the High Court of Australia (although this is a rare occurrence), as well as lower District and Family Courts.20 The legislative branch of Nauru consists of a unicameral Parliament consisting of 18 members elected from two-seat constituencies (except for the Ubeneide constituency, which elects 4 members).21 The Parliaments elects a President from its membership, who serves as both the head of state and the head of government. The President selects four to five members of Parliament to serve on the Cabinet. Parliamentary and presidential terms are ostensibly three years long, although the President, through the Speaker, can suspend Parliament and call snap elections at any time, which normally occurs when the President has lost majority support in the government.22 The Parliament can at any time conduct a vote of no confidence in the President and his Cabinet and oust them from power; however, they do not lose their seats in Parliament if such a vote is successful. 

Political parties do not play a major role in Nauruan politics. Parliamentary candidates generally stand as independents. The Parliament is generally divided between supporters of the President and an opposition usually centered around one member who is a strong opponent of the President. In practice, these coalitions are rather loose and members have been known to defect from one side to the other. However, political parties have existed throughout Nauru’s independent history; parties that have been active in recent memory include the Democratic Party, the Centre Party, and Nauru First (arguably the only formal political party in Nauru). 

Local affairs are handled by the Nauru Island Council, which, due to the fact that Nauru is a small island with only approximately 15,000 residents, has limited powers and largely serves in an advisory capacity to the main national government. Members of the Nauru Island Council cannot also serve as members of Parliament. Nauru does not have a standing military; by informal agreement defense of Nauru is the responsibility of Australia. Nauru does have a police force that is under civilian control.23 B. Political History 

The approximately 40 years of political history of independent Nauru can be divided into roughly two twenty-year periods. The first twenty-year period was marked by relative stability, where Nauru’s first President, Hammer DeRoburt, served in office from 1968 to 1989, interrupted only by one eighteen month period lasting from December 1976 to May 1978 and two other periods lasting a few weeks each.24 This period also coincided with a period of significant economic success for Nauru, where the country enjoyed on of the highest gross domestic product per capita figures in the world.25 The second twenty-year period of Nauru’s political history has experienced significant political turmoil, with ten individuals serving as President over nineteen changes in presidential administration. During this period only Bernard Dowiyogo, Ludwig Scotty, and current president Marcus Stephen have managed to last in office longer than the three year Parliamentary term, although all three called snap elections at one time or another during their presidencies.26 

Despite the occasional ferocity of the political battles between the factions in Parliament, the country has never descended into widespread violence, and the frequent transitions in power have been peaceful. Sporadic violence does break out from time to time, such as in 2008 when protesters burnt down the island’s only prison, but such violence is the exception rather than the rule.

Nauru’s politics have grown increasingly chaotic over the past six or seven years as the country’s economy has effectively collapsed and the government has become almost entirely dependent on foreign aid in order to continue providing basic services. Recent turmoil started during the presidential administration of Ludwig Scotty from 2004 to 2007. Although the Scotty administration provided a level of political stability that hadn’t been seen in at least ten years, Scotty’s policies were marked by significant economic austerity measures designed to combat Nauru’s severe economic problems. The government was also concerned with political reform aimed at improving the functioning of Parliament.28 Scotty and his supporters were reelected with strong public support in August 2007. 

However, by the end of 2007, the Scotty administration was mired in allegations of corruption, particularly directed at Scotty’s Foreign Minister, David Adeang, and at Scotty himself for failing to take action regarding the allegations.29 Scotty survived a vote of no confidence in November 2007, followed by snap elections shortly after. However, the elections returned a Parliament that ultimately voted the Scotty administration out of office, and elected the current President, Marcus Stephen. However, Stephen only commanded the support of nine of the eighteen members of Parliament, resulting in a hung parliament. 

One of Stephen’s primary concerns coming into office was continuing reform of the political system; specifically, amending the Constitution to have the President directly elected by the people, ending the possibility of votes of no-confidence. However, Stephen’s administration has been largely under siege by Parliamentary opposition. 

In March 2008, then-Speaker of Parliament David Adeang, de-facto opposition leader, orchestrated a session of Parliament that Cabinet members were not notified of, as a result did not attend. With the opposition constituting a majority of the members present, Adeang passed legislation that made persons who held dual citizenship ineligible to hold seats in Parliament. The law was targeted at Cabinet ministers Kieren Keke and Frederick Pitcher, who, if the law was upheld, would have been forced to resign their seats, giving the opposition the majority.30 The Stephen administration immediately denounced the law as unconstitutional, arguing that the law was passed without a Parliamentary quorum. Adeang retaliated by alleging that Stephen was conducting a coup d’etat by influencing the police not to forcibly remove Keke and Pitcher from the Parliament. Stephen denied accusations of a coup, stating that he was awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court before removing members of Parliament. Adeang responded that the Court ruling was “just an opinion”, to which Keke argued that the Court, and not the Speaker, had the ultimate authority to determine eligibility of members of Parliament.31 

The next month, the Supreme Court resolved the issue by ruling that Adeang had acted unconstitutionally by attempting to pass law without Parliamentary quorum. However, the situation between the Stephen administration and Adeang continued to remain strained, when Adeang refused to seat Stephen and his supporters following a raucous dispute on the floor of Parliament during a discussion of the Supreme Court ruling. Stephen declared a state of emergency, dissolved Parliament, and called snap elections at the end of April 2008 in an attempt to end the parliamentary gridlock. With the recent victory in the Supreme Court giving the Stephen administration added legitimacy, the elections gave Stephen a solid majority in the Parliament, which brought stability back to Nauruan politics for the next year and a half.32 Adeang was unseated as Speaker, replaced by Riddell Akua. 

However, by the beginning of 2010, the political situation in Nauru had once again destabilized, with several supporters of Stephen shifting to the opposition, resulting in a hung parliament. In March, Stephen called snap elections for the following month. However, the election reelected all eighteen members of Parliament, and the deadlock continued. With no end to the crisis by June, Stephen declared a state of emergency and dissolved the Parliament in advance of another round of snap elections. A second round of Parliamentary elections in June 2010 returned only one new member of Parliament in exchange for one of the members of the opposition. The new member, Milton Dube, declined to immediately side with either faction, stating that he would caucus with whichever side would do the most for his constituency, Aiwo.33 Aloysius Amwano was elected Speaker, and demanded that Stephen step down as President. The Stephen administration agreed to have Stephen step down, but only if another member of their faction were elected President, preferably Kieren Keke. However, de facto leader of the opposition Baron Waqa as well as MP Godfrey Thoma were also speculated to be seeking the presidency.34 In early July, the deadlock was technically broken when a member of the opposition, Rykers Solomon, joined the supporters of Stephen, but Speaker Amwano refused to hold an election for president. Stephen purported to dismiss Amwano, but Amwano publicly stated that he would refuse to quit.35 However, only a few days later, the deputy speaker, Landon Deireragera, announced that he had assumed the speakership. With no end to the chaos in sight, Stephen, serving as a caretaker President, has suspended Parliament and declared the state of emergency still in effect.

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