SYDNEY – Voting began Friday in the small Pacific island of Tuvalu, in a national election that could reverberate from China to Australia.
With just over 11,500 inhabitants, Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world, but the elections for the 16-seat parliament were closely watched. After the votes are counted, parliamentary negotiations will form a new government and elect the prime minister. The polls opened at 8 a.m. and would close at 4 p.m
Prime Minister Kausea Natano is a candidate again, but even a re-election to parliament cannot guarantee him the highest post.
Finance Minister Seve Paeniu is challenging him, and opposition leader Enele Sopoaga hopes to become prime minister again after losing to Natano after the 2019 elections.
The elections come as China, the United States and others vie for influence in the strategically crucial region.
Tuvalu, a British colony until 1978, is one of only twelve countries that maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that China claims as its own territory.
But China has pushed Taiwan’s allies to switch alliances. Natano has rejected Beijing so far, but that could change after these elections. Nauru, another small Pacific nation, recently shifted its support from Taiwan to China.
Paeniu has said he wants to review Tuvalu’s relations with both Taiwan and China.
Global warming is another major problem, as Tuvalu’s low-lying atolls are regularly flooded.
A proposed security treaty between Tuvalu and Australia could also be on the cards. The treaty commits Australia to assist Tuvalu in response to major natural disasters, health pandemics and military aggression. The treaty also gives Australia veto power over any security or defense-related agreement Tuvalu wishes to enter into with any other country, including China.
The debate over the treaty is divisive and it has yet to be ratified. Sopoaga has said he would reject it.