A former human rights lawyer was elected Nauru’s new president Tuesday, following calls for widespread reform in the tiny Pacific nation which Australia uses as a detention centre for asylum seekers.
Lionel Aingimea won a parliamentary vote for the presidency 12-6 over rival David Adeang, the Nauru government information office said.
It comes in the wake of a general election last weekend that saw more than half of Nauru’s 19 lawmakers swept from office, including two-term president Baron Waqa.
Adeang had been considered favorite to take the top job from Waqa, a strong supporter of Australia’s hardline refugee policy.
Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank last year said the country of 11,000 “lurched towards authoritarianism” under Waqa’s leadership.
His government made it difficult for international media to visit Nauru to report on conditions facing asylum seekers and pursued domestic political opponents through the courts, accusing them of rioting during a 2015 protest outside parliament.
Speaking before Aingimea’s election to the presidency, opposition figure Mathew Batsiua said the general election was “a decisive win for change”.
“Clearly people have had enough of … a government that’s been cracking down on the rights and freedoms of people,” he told Radio New Zealand.
“People want a government that’s more fair and that doesn’t leave people behind.”
Whether Aingimea will prove a reformist is unclear.
The Australian-trained lawyer previously worked as a senior trainer with the Regional Rights Resource Team, a Fiji-based body aimed at promoting human rights in the Pacific.
However, Aingimea subsequently worked in the Waqa administration, first as a senior public servant, then as an assistant minister for justice and border control.
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 fertilizer.
Nauru’s government revenues ballooned from Aus$20 million (US$13 million) in 2010-11 to Aus$115 million (US$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.