The president of the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru declared an emergency yesterday, dissolved parliament and called new elections next week in a bid to boost his grip on the government amid a fierce row with the opposition.
The political crisis in the impoverished country of 12,000 people stems from the fact that Nauruan President Marcus Stephen’s government holds only half of the 18 seats of parliament as it feuds with opposition lawmakers.
Rioters last month set fire to the main police station during a weekend protest by about 100 young people in Nauru, a 21km2 island halfway between Australia and Hawaii. There were unconfirmed rumors that opposition politicians fueled the riots.
Stephen said in a statement yesterday that Nauru’s political process was “seriously compromised” by the opposition’s “self-serving agenda of economic destruction, which is now starting to hurt every Nauruan.”
Stephen set new elections for next Saturday. Voters elect the 18 lawmakers, who are responsible for choosing the president.
Stephen’s bloc sought to neutralize the opposition in late December by electing rival lawmaker David Adeang as parliament speaker, an official who votes only to break ties. That shifted a 9 to 9 split with the opposition to a 9 to 8 split in Stephen’s favor.
But the move backfired, with Adeang using the position to cause trouble for the government.
On March 22, he moved to ban two of Stephen’s Cabinet members because they were dual citizens of Nauru and Australia. The Supreme Court overturned the ban, but last week Adeang suspended all nine government lawmakers, citing their “unruly and shameful behavior” in parliament.
Stephen said the opposition maneuvers were blocking budget bills and threatening foreign investment. Under the emergency, he assumes executive powers so the government can pay civil service salaries and other bills, but no individual rights are suspended.
“I believe the voters of Nauru will voice their disgust at the opposition’s attempt to hold our democratic institutions to ransom,” Stephen said in the statement.
Adeang could not be contacted for comment.
Elections were last held on Aug. 25, 2007, and new ones were not due until 2010.
A former champion weightlifter, Stephen was elected president by lawmakers on Dec. 19 after incumbent Ludwig Scotty was ousted in a no-confidence motion.
Nauru was once a major supplier of phosphate used mainly in fertilizers, but reserves have dwindled. Inhabitants rely heavily on fishing and gardens.