For those Lebanese grimly preparing for a prolonged political stalemate, you may be reassured to learn that Lebanon is far from alone in experiencing a parliamentary paralysis.
A similar — although less violent — situation has arisen on the tiny island of Nauru in the Pacific Ocean. With a land area of only 21 square kilometers and a population of 13,770, Nauru is credited with being the smallest republic in the world, the smallest island state, the least populous member of the United Nations and the only republic without a capital. The island generated considerable wealth — achieving at one time the highest per capita income in the world — through exporting its enormous phosphate reserves. But the phosphates began to run out in the 1990s and Nauru sought other, less orthodox, means of generating income, such as money laundering. Today it receives cash handouts from Australia in exchange for housing a detention facility for would-be emigrants to Australia.
Nauru’s current political woes began in December with the election as president of Marcus Stephens, a former weightlifting champion and a medalist in the British Commonwealth Games who is revered as a national idol. In Nauru, the president is also head of the government.
In March, the opposition in Nauru’s 18-seat parliament attempted to topple Stephens by demanding a vote of no confidence. The opposition is seeking to re-elect a former Nauruan president, Rene Harris, whose chief claim to fame appears to have been to turn Nauru from one of the world’s richest nations into one of the poorest.
But the opposition move was finessed by the resignation of the parliamentary speaker Riddell Akua, an ally of the president, thus deadlocking parliament. David Adeang, an opposition MP, was appointed the new speaker, allowing him to table a vote of no confidence. But his appointment reduced the opposition’s share of the parliament to just eight seats, giving the loyalist camp the majority. That meant that although the opposition could now call for a no-confidence vote, it could not win as the loyalists held the majority. Adeang, the new speaker and clearly a crafty fellow, then called for a parliamentary session on Easter Saturday — without informing the loyalist bloc. The opposition MPs met alone and quickly voted in new legislation forbidding Nauruans with dual citizenship from sitting in parliament. The result of that new law was that two members of the loyalist camp, who were dual Nauruan and Australian citizens, could no longer sit in parliament, thus handing the majority back to the opposition.
The loyalists cried foul, insisting the parliamentary session on Easter Saturday was unconstitutional and lacked quorum, thus the new law was invalid. Adeang retorted that as speaker he could decide what was or was not quorum.
Stop me when any of this sounds familiar.
The loyalist camp then took their complaint to the Supreme Court and asked for a ruling on whether the Easter session was legitimate. The Supreme Court pondered awhile, then ruled that the session was indeed unconstitutional and the law banning dual nationals from parliament must be rescinded.
But Adeang, the redoubtable speaker, ignored the Supreme Court decision and refused to open parliament. Budget supply bills have been blocked as well as a number of investment projects for Nauru, threatening the island’s economy.
“They have made a mockery of parliamentary process and our constitution,” President Stephens said in a statement. “We can’t stand by any longer while the opposition pursues its self-serving agenda of economic destruction, which is now starting to hurt every Nauruan. I believe the voters of Nauru will voice their disgust at the opposition’s attempts to hold our democratic institutions to ransom.”
Substitute “Nauru” for “Lebanon” and “Nauruans” for “Lebanese” and that could have been Ahmad Fatfat fulminating against Nabih Berri.
The latest move in this South Pacific saga is the decision by President Stephens to dissolve parliament, declare a state of emergency and call for elections at the end of April.
Still, the good folks of Nauru will not be seeing bored-
looking soldiers standing on street corners or manning heavy machine guns atop armored personnel carriers at busy street junctions as Nauru does not have an army. (In fact, does Nauru have busy street junctions?). Happily, neither have they been plagued with assassinations, wars or bomb attacks; although a central police station burned down in March in a suspected case of arson linked to a commercial dispute.
Still, the political crisis in Nauru has earned the island that badge of international recognition for unstable states — the travel advisory from a Western Government.
“The political situation in Nauru is uncertain,” says the British Foreign Office stiffly. It advises potential tourists to “avoid large gatherings and keep away from major infrastructure sites.”
That should not be too hard in the world’s smallest island state.
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based journalist and author of “Killing Mr. Lebanon — The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East.”