Nauru – a political system in miniature

The only national election held last weekend was on such a small scale that it would probably escape notice entirely were it not so close to home. Even so it’s had precious little media coverage.

Australians have all heard of Nauru; it’s the place to which the Howard and Gillard governments have both exiled unwanted asylum seekers. Those who live in Melbourne will also be familiar with Nauru House, although the Nauruans sold it in 2004. But we know little else about the tiny island nation, perhaps because we don’t want to remind ourselves about the appalling record of Australian colonial policy. (Our ignorance about Papua New Guinea is a larger symptom of the same thing.)

Put bluntly, Nauru is a failed state. It survives on foreign aid; there is almost no private employment, its national bank is insolvent, its people have the highest obesity rate in the world, its landscape and flora have been devastated by phosphate mining and its political class convey an impression of utter hopelessness.

You can read the details yourself at the CIA World Factbook, at Australia’s DFAT, at Daily Kos, the BBC, and of course Wikipedia. They all tell pretty much the same bleak story. Even the Nauruan government’s own website is unable to strike an upbeat note.

Of course, if you have to find 19 MPs out of a voting population that can’t be much over 6,000, you’re not going to get the world’s most talented legislature. Indeed, it’s striking how much choice voters had: there were a total of 68 candidates for the eight constituencies, or about one in every hundred eligible Nauruans. The size of the parliament was increased by one at this election to avoid the deadlock that can (and did) arise with an even number (a sensible move that both the Australian federal and Victorian state parliaments refuse to make).

Although it doesn’t have much else going for it, Nauru does have an exotic electoral system. It’s a modified Borda count: voters rank the candidates in their order of preference (as in Australia), and then points are allocated to them – one point for a first preference, half a point for a second, a third of a point for a third, and so on. The candidates with the most points (two per constituency, except for one with three members and one with four) are elected.

This is not a bad system for producing consensus candidates, but it leaves big openings for tactical voting – not to mention potential for things to go badly wrong if your tactics are based on miscalculation. (It must also be horrible to count, although I guess the small numbers and large pool of unemployed would help.) In practice it seems to have been very stable: at the April 2010 election, for example, every sitting MP was re-elected.

This year there was speculation that there would be much more turnover. The tumultuous goings-on (in miniature, at least) of the last few years were supposed to have led to an anti-incumbent mood. And sure enough, although most of the major figures have been returned (including three former presidents), six of the 18 MPs were defeated – among them Freddie Pitcher (another former president), whom Wikipedia was treating as opposition leader.

But with no party system – all the candidates are nominally independents – it makes it hard to interpret what MPs have been doing or predict what they’re going to do in future. And after the new MPs were sworn in this morning, they elected another new president, Baron Waqa, the fifth in six years, by a vote of 13 to five. (The president is both head of state and head of government.)

With any luck that vote indicates a degree of consensus that escaped the last three parliaments. Whether the new government will be able to make any sense of the refugee issue, however, is a question for another day.


2 thoughts on “Nauru – a political system in miniature

  1. The country seems to have been in decline for the last 25 or more years, never having found anything to replace the phosphate mining. Quite sad.


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