7 Sep 2019

Sopoanga hopes he’s done enough for re-election when Tuvalu goes to the polls

8:53 am on 7 September 2019

On a recent Sunday morning, Enele Sopoaga was praying in the searing Tuvalu sun. His job will be on the line on Monday, when one of the world's smallest democracies goes to the polls.

Tuvalu's Parliament building

Tuvalu's parliament building Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Jamie Tahana

"I'm praying hard. I listened to the pastor," said Mr Sopoaga. "I didn't see other ministers and I hope they are praying somewhere. And other MPs, I certainly hope they go and pray."

Mr Sopoaga, 63, has been the prime minister of the nine islands of Tuvalu since 2013, making him the country's second-longest serving leader since independence in 1978.

On Monday 9 September, the 11,000 people of Tuvalu will vote to fill the 16-member parliament, which occupies a corner at the top of a three-story building in Funafuti, which also houses the entire public service.

There are eight districts which cover the entire country. Each of them will elect two members of parliament. In all, there are 37 candidates contesting this year's election, two of whom are women: Valisi Alimau, who is standing in Mr Sopoaga's island of Nukufetau, and the current minister for natural resources, Puakena Boreham.

Mr Sopoaga, who has spent much of the past two weeks campaigning in Nukufetau - population 500 - said he was confident with what he has achieved since he took over as prime minister in a vote of no confidence in 2013, but it was anyone's guess as to whether he had done enough to be re-elected.

In his six years as leader, Mr Sopoaga has become a fixture on the world stage, highlighting the vulnerability of his country, a series of narrow atolls and islands, as it increasingly bears the brunt of a changing climate.

Enele Sopoaga

Enele Sopoaga Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Jamie Tahana

Just last month, he hosted the region's leaders when the Pacific Islands Forum came to town, boosting main island Funafuti's population by about 10 percent. Mr Sopoaga had wanted a firm commitment from the region's leaders for climate action to take to a major UN summit next month.

While that ended in a confrontation with Australia and a watered-down communique, Mr Sopoaga still said he was happy with the outcome -- even if it was not as strong as he had hoped. The fact that Tuvalu could pull off the forum at all was remarkable, he said.

Would that lead to a boost in support? He hoped so.

"Placing this in front of Tuvaluans, there you go, we managed to pull the biggest fish in the Pacific, the forum. The place looks beautiful," he said.

There are no political parties in Tuvalu, and campaigns are mostly based around family ties and reputation. Some districts may only have a few dozen people.

Simon Kofe, who was elected to represent Funafuti in a by-election in November, said it was hard for a candidate to tell how they would do.

Simon Kofe

Simon Kofe Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Jamie Tahana

"You never know," he chuckled. "You just never know. So far, we've had five candidates running for this island that I'm contesting, so maybe one out of five chance of getting back in."

"But because it's such a small place, people know you, people know your background. It's just how you've conducted yourself in the past. They look at your track record, they look at how you've performed in the past. I'm hoping I can ride on that and secure a seat in parliament."

Isaiah Taape, a member for Vaitupu, the country's largest island, said he would be campaigning to finish a development strategy he had started in the past year, which he wanted to see through to implementation.

"I'm focussed on economic development, health development. Everything is there. All the different types of developments is there. Social, economic and so forth," he said.

Isaia Taape

Isaia Taape Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Jamie Tahana

While Mr Sopoaga has won plaudits around the world for his climate advocacy, at home the past four years have not been smooth, with the prime minister having to fend off several confidence motions against him.

His last one was in May, when several members - including Mr Taape and Mr Kofe - opposed Mr Sopoaga's actions when it came to promised constitutional reforms.

After the 2015 election, Mr Sopoaga established a constitutional review commission, on which Mr Kofe sat, that toured each island to discuss what changes should be made to a document created when the British finally left in 1978.

The commission submitted a draft that called for measures like cultural principles in parliament, the direct election of the prime minister, and an independent director of public prosecutions.

But Mr Kofe said the proposal that eventually made it to parliament was drastically different from that submitted, and he blamed Mr Sopoaga.

"We started off as a united caucus when I came in, and I think throughout this year we had a kind of falling out on some of those issues in the constitution," Mr Kofe said.

"We felt that we couldn't work with the government because we felt that the work that was going ahead did not reflect what the people wanted."

Voter lists ahead of Tuvalu

Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Jamie Tahana

Mr Sopoaga wasn't worried about those concerns, saying the process would continue after the election. Even then, loyalties can be fickle in politics. Would Mr Taape support Mr Sopoaga if he put his name forward to be prime minister again?

"Well, ah, it's, you know politics," he laughed. "Sometimes we talk about numbers and I think that's another issue. But for us to work together, of course we can work together you know."

Mr Taape added that beyond the constitutional reforms, and the fight for Tuvalu's future (the new prime minister is likely to attend UN climate talks later this month in one of their first moves), there are also other pressing issues. Improving quality of life in a country with one of the lowest GDPs in the world, is one of them, as is providing reasons to keep youth in Tuvalu or to attract them back.

Once the results are known come Monday night, the new members will meet later this month. There, the 16 members will thrash out the formation of the next parliament, deciding which of them will become the speaker, who will make up the cabinet and, of course, who will be the next prime minister.

Whoever emerges from that ballot, Mr Sopoaga said, they've got to keep the momentum going.

"I certainly hope I can come back after general elections," he said. "But whoever wins the general elections, those are the tasks that are in front of him or her to help take the message forward. I think it's important for us not to give up, but to take this message forward."

A street in Tuvlau

Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Jamie Tahana

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs