WELLINGTON – Nauru’s president, a strong supporter of Australia’s hard-line policy of detaining refugees on the tiny Pacific island nation, has lost his seat in a general election, official results showed Sunday.
Voters went to the polls on Saturday and selected two rival candidates over Baron Waqa in his electorate of Boe, ending the 59-year-old’s six years in office.
His successor will not be known until the 19-member parliament meets to choose a new president, with finance minister David Adeang considered a favorite after being re-elected.
Waqa proved a controversial leader at times and Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank last year said the country of 11,000 “lurched towards authoritarianism” under his leadership.
His government has made it difficult for international media visiting Nauru to report on conditions facing asylum seekers.
It also introduced laws carrying heavy jail terms for political protesters and at times curbed access to sites such as Facebook, which critics said was aimed at curbing dissent.
Australia’s policy of processing asylum seekers on Nauru — and the equally remote Manus island in Papua New Guinea — has proved an economic lifeline for a country which exhausted its previous source of wealth: phosphate deposits used as fertiliser.
Nauru’s government revenues ballooned from Aus$20 million ($13 million) in 2010-11 to Aus$115 million ($77 million) in 2015-16 largely due to fees paid by Canberra linked to the asylum policy, official Australian data shows.
Refugee advocates estimate around 300 refugees remain on the island, down from a peak of about 1,200 in 2014.
Rights groups and the United Nations have consistently criticized the conditions faced by refugees, warning indefinite detention causes mental health problems and suicide attempts.
The Refugee Action Coalition said the latest incident occurred on Friday, when a Pakistani man it identified only as Jamal set himself on fire.
It said the man was believed to be in a critical condition in intensive care after being flown from Nauru to Brisbane for medical treatment.
“Jamal is another casualty of Australia offshore detention policy. After six years on Nauru, refugees have no secure future. They have lost hope,” spokesman Ian Rintoul said.
“Over 300 refugees remain on Nauru, but the government has no resettlement plans.”