Tuvalu’s pro-Taiwan leader loses seat in election

The election was being monitored by Taiwan, China, the U.S. and Australia, who compete for influence in a increasingly disputed Pacific.

The Pacific Islands nation of Tuvalu, a staunch ally of Taiwan, saw its pro-Taiwan leader Kausea Natano lose his parliamentary seat in an election that drew attention from Taiwan, China, the U.S. and Australia, according to results announced on Saturday.

Tuvalu, which has about 11,200 people living on nine islands, is one of only three Pacific countries that still recognize Taiwan, after Nauru switched to Beijing earlier this month following China’s offer of more development assistance.

Natano had vowed to maintain Tuvalu’s friendship with Taiwan, which has been a diplomatic partner since 1979. However, another potential leader, Seve Paeniu, has suggested that Tuvalu should reconsider its ties with either Taiwan or China, based on their respective responses to Tuvalu’s needs.

The election comes at a time when Taiwan and China are locked in a diplomatic struggle for influence in the Pacific, where the U.S. has also increased its presence and pledged to connect Tuvalu to the global telecommunications network with the first submarine cable.

An election official on Tuvalu TV reported on Saturday that Natano failed to keep his seat in the Funafuti electorate. He could not be contacted for comment. Paeniu, who was re-elected unopposed in the Nukulaelae island electorate, said he would try to form a coalition with other lawmakers to run for prime minister.

Enele Sopoaga, another possible leader, also kept his seat, as per official results. Sopoaga has expressed support for Taiwan but opposed a security agreement with Australia. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it believed that most of the elected lawmakers “support the continuation of the friendship between the two countries”. The ministry said it would closely monitor the post-election situation and keep strengthening its friendship and cooperation with the new parliament members to ensure stable relations.

Tuvalu’s parliament has no political parties, and each of the eight island electorates elects two lawmakers. Paeniu told Reuters on Saturday that the new government should discuss the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China. “Our previous government under Prime Minister Natano had thorough internal discussions about it at the start of our term in government to decide our policy stance on it, so the new government would certainly need to examine the matter and determine its policy accordingly,” he said.

Tuvalu’s election commissioner, Tufoua Panapa, said the new lawmakers would meet next week to elect a prime minister, at a time set by the governor general. “We will have a clearer picture by next week – as we need to transport elect-MPs to the main island, from the outer-islands,” he said. The boat trip can take up to 27 hours.

Natano signed a comprehensive deal with Australia in November that allows Canberra to oversee Tuvalu’s security relations with other countries, as well as its port and telecommunications projects, in exchange for a defence guarantee and migration opportunities for citizens threatened by rising seas. The deal was seen as an attempt to counter China’s growing role as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands, but was criticized by some Tuvalu lawmakers.

Sopoaga has said he wants to cancel the Australian deal because it violated Tuvalu’s sovereignty. He did not reply to a request for comment on Saturday. Simon Kofe, the former Foreign Minister who made global headlines in 2021 when he gave a speech at the United Nations climate change summit standing in water up to his knees to emphasize the plight of the low-lying nation, kept his seat in parliament for Funafuti.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong said she looked forward to working with the new Tuvalu government.

“Australia and Tuvalu are long-time friends, sharing an interest in creating a stronger, more resilient and more peaceful Pacific,” she said in a statement on social media.

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