Tuvalu’s Pro-Taiwan Leader Loses Seat in National Election

Tuvalu Election Office/Handout via REUTERS
Men carry ballot boxes in preparation for the general elections on Friday, in Funafuti, Tuvalu January 22, 2024.

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The pro-Taiwan leader of the Pacific Islands nation of Tuvalu, Kausea Natano, lost his seat in an election closely watched by Taiwan, China and the U.S., partial results showed on Saturday.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties this month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Natano had pledged to continue support for Taiwan, a diplomatic ally since 1979. Another leadership contender, Seve Paeniu, has said diplomatic ties should be reviewed, with the new government deciding whether Taiwan or China can best respond to Tuvalu’s needs.

The diplomatic tussle between Taiwan and China comes amid a wider contest for influence in the Pacific between China and the U.S., with Washington recently pledging the first submarine cable to connect Tuvalu to global telecommunications.

Results for the electorate of Funafuti released on Saturday by an election official on Tuvalu TV showed Natano did not retain his seat. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Paeniu, returned unopposed in the Nukulaelae island electorate, said he would seek to form a coalition among elected lawmakers to run for prime minister.

Another leadership contender, Enele Sopoaga, also retained his seat, official results showed. Sopoaga has pledged support for Taiwan but wants a security deal with Australia scrapped.

There are no political parties in Tuvalu’s parliament, where two lawmakers are elected in each of eight island electorates.

Paeniu told Reuters on Saturday the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

“Our last government under Prime Minister Natano had extensive internal discussions about it upon the commencement of our term in government to determine our policy stance on it, so undoubtedly the new government would need to look at the matter and decide its policy position accordingly,” he said.

Tuvalu’s election commissioner, Tufoua Panapa, said on Friday evening after polling booths closed that the new lawmakers will meet next week to vote for a prime minister, at a time notified by the Governor General.

“We will have a clearer picture by next week – as we need to bring elect-MPs to the capital island, from the outer-islands,” he said. The boat journey can take up to 27 hours.

Natano signed a wide-ranging security and migration deal with Australia in November that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s security ties with other nations, as well as port and telecommunications projects, in return for a defense guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands, but was criticized by some Tuvalu lawmakers.

Sopoaga has said he wants the Australian deal scrapped because it infringed on Tuvalu’s sovereignty. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

Paeniu said he would keep the agreement with Australia.

Former Foreign Minister Simon Kofe, who attracted global headlines in 2021 when he delivered a speech to the United Nations climate change summit standing knee-deep in water to highlight the plight of the low-lying nation, has retained his seat in parliament for Funafuti.