This year’s Pacific Island elections have one thing in common

By Kerryn Baker*, Australian National University

Analysis – It’s shaping up to be a busy year for elections in the Pacific Islands.

Tuvalu and Solomon Islands have already gone to the polls for national elections, and Vanuatu recently concluded its first national referendum. National elections will be held later in the year in Palau and Kiribati. Meanwhile, the largest country in the region, Papua New Guinea, has local level government elections scheduled for the latter half of the year.

These electoral contests are taking place in diverse contexts, but they have much in common – a lack of gender parity among candidates and lower levels of engagement by women.

These reveal a gender gap in the region’s politics that could have serious implications for democracy.

What Pacific elections have in common

All the Pacific Islands countries going to the polls in 2024 have very low levels of women’s political representation.

After January’s elections, Tuvalu now has no women parliamentarians at all. The Pacific Islands region has the lowest proportion of female politicians in the world. There are only two women heads of state across the region: President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands, and Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, Prime Minister of Samoa.

There are other similarities between this year’s Pacific Islands elections. Polls represent significant logistical challenges and can strain administrative capacity. The April elections in Solomon Islands were delayed a year, and PNG’s local polls have already been delayed two years.

These elections are also taking place in a context of rising geopolitical tensions surrounding China and Taiwan. Solomon Islands and Kiribati both switched recognition to Beijing in 2019, while Tuvalu and Palau continue to recognise Taiwan, although evidence is limited that foreign policy plays a decisive role in domestic elections in the region.

While these last two factors are not overtly linked to gender parity, they can overshadow women’s political participation as a priority.

The Revitalised Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration endorsed in 2023 by Pacific Islands Forum Leaders clearly outlines a goal of strengthening women’s participation in leadership and decision-making, yet issues with electoral administrative capacity at the

domestic level, and an overwhelming focus on strategic tensions at the international level, can limit the attention paid to this pressing issue.

Gender participation differences are clear

Evidence on why Pacific voters make the decisions they do is limited. There is a long-standing assumption in Pacific politics research that politics is hyper-localised, with personalised relationships between politicians and voters determining elections.

But this assumption is challenged by emerging dynamics in the region. In Solomon Islands this year, various politicians successfully campaigned on national rather than local issues, albeit in campaigns that were still very focused on individual candidates rather than party platforms.

The immense diversity of electoral systems across the region also complicates this picture. In Kiribati, for example, the president is directly elected, prioritising a focus on national issues.

A general lack of political attitudes data in the region hinders our understanding of what women voters actually want.

We cannot draw on representative opinion or exit polls to draw conclusions here, and Pacific Islands countries are excluded from global datasets on popular attitudes. But the Pacific Attitudes Survey project is attempting to change this, and findings from the first two surveys in Samoa (2021) and Vanuatu (2023) give us some insight into gender and political participation.

The surveys show that key political issues are not necessarily gendered. When asked about the most important issues facing their countries, men and women respondents highlighted economic concerns, with health in Samoa and climate change in Vanuatu also seen as critical.

But gender differences were clearly apparent in survey responses regarding political efficacy and participation.

In Samoa and Vanuatu, men were far more likely to report interest in politics than women, and far more likely to participate in all forms of political activity.

In Samoa, women were significantly more likely than men to agree that ‘for people like me it does not really matter what kind of government they have’. This points to a substantial, and concerning, gender gap in political participation that has implications for the quality of democracy in the region.

Pacific women are also engaging with politics at far lower rates than men as voters, candidates, and politicians creating a male-dominated system in which women’s voices at all levels are under-represented. What data we do have on political attitudes underlines the extent and significance of this problem.

Given the limitations of the data researchers currently have on women’s political engagement in the Pacific Islands, we would greatly benefit from more extensive and region-wide surveys on political attitudes.

There are many mooted solutions to boosting women’s political participation including quotas, which are not common practice across the region, and other changes to make political candidacy more viable for women such as challenging Samoa’s rule that only matai, or chiefs, can be political candidates.

A solid evidence base would make for better and more effective policy change.

In the meantime, however, it is clear that the gender gap in Pacific politics, extending from voters to candidates and elected politicians, is a critical concern.

*Dr Kerryn Baker is a Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs, ANU. Her research is on Pacific politics, with a focus on women’s representation, elections and popular attitudes.

-Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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