Pacific regionalism in crisis

It is hard to imagine a bleaker day for Pacific regionalism than Feb 3. It saw the unfolding of two, apparently unconnected, dramatic events – a tight election battle for the position of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) secretary-general and the deportation of the vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific (USP), Stephen Howes and Sadhana Sen write
Pacific nations leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu in 2019. The Pacific Islands’ most important regional body is on the brink of collapse after a dispute over the election of a new leader led Palau to abandon the organisation and announce the withdrawal of its embassy from Fiji. – Picture courtesy of Pacific Islands Forum

Both events will cause division and discord and significantly weaken both institutions involved.

Election of PIF secretary-general
The long-delayed, much-anticipated, specially- convened virtual leaders’ meeting to choose the successor to two-term PIF secretary-general Dame Meg Taylor defied all prior talk of Pacific leaders being unable to make decisions except in person and by consensus.
The selection from the five candidates proceeded by elimination.
Discussions on the leadership began in the afternoon.
According to inside sources, the first to withdraw its candidate was Fiji, which generally does not field a candidate due to the forum secretariat being located in its capital, Suva.
Whether this was related to the USP developments on the same night (discussed below) remains a matter for speculation.
After that, the first vote was held.
This time, we were told, the Cook Islands’ Henry Puna won with seven votes; second place went to the Micronesian countries’ candidate Gerald Zackios with six; the Solomon Islands’ Jimmie Rodgers garnered three; and, Tonga’s Amelia Kinahoi-Siamomua (the sole female candidate) only one.
First Tonga withdrew its candidate and then the Solomon Islands.
The final vote was not held till close to midnight.
Puna, again, won, with nine votes to Zackios’ eight.
Who voted for whom is unknown.
We know that the five Micronesian states of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Kiribati, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands were all committed to Zackios.
Puna, the successful candidate, was the Cook Islands former prime minister who resigned from that post to compete for the secretary-general’s job.
So he clearly had some good assurances of support as well.
We know some PIF countries resented the threat of the Micronesian countries to leave if their candidate wasn’t successful, and some might have thought that, as the only former PM running, Puna was the most experienced candidate for the job.
Whatever the reasons, and regardless of who was the better candidate, the decision looked like the wrong one for the forum.
If Zackios had won, no country would have left the forum.
Now that he has lost, it is quite possible that at least some Micronesian countries will do just that.
Palau’s President Surgangal Whipp (while implying that Australia and New Zealand supported Puna) already said as much, commenting post-election: “Clearly, there is no need really for Micronesians to be part of them (PIF), they don’t really consider us part of them.”
FSM President David Panuelo’s response was to indicate that the Micronesian states would meet soon to discuss next steps and remind everyone of their earlier threat to leave.
And can you blame them?
It is hard to argue with the Micronesian claims that: (a) there has only been one Micronesian leader in the 50-year history of the forum; and (b) there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” when Dame Meg was elected that a Micronesian candidate would get up next time.
The fact that these claims weren’t respected showed that other countries either didn’t think Micronesia would follow through or didn’t care.
Can the forum survive without Micronesia?
Melanesian and Polynesian countries in some ways have little in common and might think they can do better on their own.
Even with a departure of only one or a couple of Micronesian countries, the forum will be weakened, and its attentions diverted for several years to come.
USP vice-chancellor deported
If the election of Puna was unexpected, how to describe last Wednesday night’s deportation of USP vice-chancellor Prof Pal Ahluawalia and his partner Sandra Jane Price?
Their brutal deportation was for violating Fiji’s immigration act, specifically for conduct “prejudicial to the peace (etc) of Fiji”.
The back story to this was the long-running dispute between Fiji and Pal which began with his exposure of mismanagement by the previous vice-chancellor, an ally of the Fijian government.
By deporting Pal, Fiji’s confirmed its reputation for having scant respect for the rule of the law, and for relying instead on strong-arm tactics.
It also ensured that the standoff between the Fijian government and the USP council will only intensify – council met on Friday, and Pal already stated his intention to continue to serve as vice-chancellor from one of USP’s off-Fiji campuses.
Given Fiji’s blatant infringement of academic freedom and transparent attempt to bypass university governance institutions, Australia and New Zealand will have no choice but to stop their USP funding.
Other countries may follow suit.
The staff, already protesting, may begin a prolonged strike.
International staff will be deterred from joining.

Both events could have been so easily avoided, by greater transparency and agreement around secretary-general selection rules and by respect for university governance respectively.
But what happened cannot be undone.
The twin dramas will, at a minimum, cause regional division and discord.
That Fiji is the incoming forum chair and Nauru (currently chair of the Micronesian grouping) the USP council chair will only make everything more difficult.
They may not have spelled the end of the Pacific Island Forum and the crown jewel of Pacific regionalism, USP, but last Wednesday’s events have seriously weakened both.

This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog (, from the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University.

Stephen Howes is the director of the Development Policy Centre and a professor of economics at the Crawford School.

Sadhana Sen is the regional communications adviser at the Development Policy Centre.