The ins and outs of a Pacific democracy

It's the kind of event that makes administrations shudder: a clerical error, a slip of the pen, that caused a government to fall. The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bahs) is an independent island nation populated by about 56,000 Micronesians. It was, until mid-1979, known as the Gilbert Islands, a British colony. (The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were jointly administered by Britain until 1975 when the Ellice Islands, populated mostly by Polynesians, became the independent nation of Tuvalu.)

Kiribati is a democracy. Its President, Ieremia Tabai, a quietly serious young man, is an unpretentious leader who announced during a 1981 visit to Australia that he still finds time, between affairs of state, to help family members supplement their food supply by climbing tall coconut trees to twist coconuts until they fall to the ground.

The Tabai administration's troubles began when many public servants were awarded a 5 percent pay rise early last year. Because of a clerical error six top government aides who should not have been awarded the pay hike received it, too.

Legally, the salaries of the six could be changed only by Parliament. So in December Mr. Tabai presented a bill in Parliament to approve the increase. It was defeated 20-15.

Next day, after furious lobbying the President confidently introduced the bill once more - noting to the Speaker of the House that its rejection would be regarded as a vote of no confidence in his administration.

Parliament wasn't swayed. The popular President's bill was again rejected. Mr. Tabai, who was only 29 when he became President, was out of office.

A three-man Council of State, now in office in the capital Bairiki, on the island of Tarawa, is running Kiribati until new elections can be held, probably next March.

Pacific analysts say President Tabai is likely to be back in charge of the tiny republic of just under 430 square miles, with its healthy respect for its own laws, after the vote.

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