Pacific nation of Kiribati goes to the polls


WELLINGTON, AFP

The Pacific nation of Kiribati held the first round of legislative elections Wednesday that will help determine the next president of the isolated island chain.

The country, made up of just 100,000 people spread out over 33 islands across a vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean, selects its presidents from candidates nominated by parliament.

Current President Anote Tong narrowly beat his brother Harry in the 2003 presidential polls, even though his party had come second in the legislative elections. The president is expected to seek re-election.

One of his first official moves was to withdraw diplomatic recognition of China and switch allegiance to Taiwan. Kiribati is one of six Pacific nations — and only 24 worldwide — which recognize Taipei rather than Beijing.

China was forced to close a controversial satellite tracking station in Kiribati after the island nation, which sits on the Equator between Australia and Hawaii, switched allegiance in 2003.

A total of 146 candidates are contesting places in the 44-seat parliament. Electoral commissioner Rini Ueara said 43,000 voters were registered, although many of those registered have not voted in past elections.

Polls were to close at 6 pm (0600 GMT) and final results of the first round were expected on Friday.

A second round will be held on Thursday next week for seats where no candidate won more than half the vote.

There are two main political parties in Kiribati, although they are informal groupings with no party platform or administrative structure. Per capita income in 2006 was estimated at 673 dollars.