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Regional News

Marshalls leadership battles end, for now

MAJURO — A tumultuous month of political leadership battles in the Marshall Islands ended Wednesday this week with the election of the country’s first woman head of state.

The ousting Tuesday of President Casten Nemra, only two weeks into his term, by a successful vote of no-confidence, suggests family ties have trumped customary authority that once dominated the Marshall Islands Nitijela’s (parliament’s) leadership lineup.

Dr. Hilda Heine’s election January 27 is another unprecedented development in the leadership battles that have played out in Nitijela this month — she is the first woman elected president in the Marshall Islands and the first female elected head of state in any independent nation in the Pacific islands.

Hilda HeineHilda Heine

Despite Kwajalein Senator and Iroij (chief) Michael Kabua’s orchestration of Nemra’s one-vote victory as president on January 4, the coalition that propelled him to the presidency as the youngest and only the second commoner president collapsed in fewer than five days. Key to this was the defection of the three Heine family members in Nitijela — all cabinet ministers during the past four years — to the opposition. The Heines’ move to the opposition followed Nemra offering cabinet postings to only two of the three — Hilda and Wilbur, but not Thomas.

The trio’s move followed a number of members of an independent group jumping to support Nemra and later receiving cabinet postings in the short-lived government. But when Nemra announced his cabinet at the January 11 swearing-in ceremony, only eight of the 10 members were named, an omission that suggested the difficulties that were to come in the days following.

Another first for the government and Nitijela was last Friday’s resignation from the cabinet of Transportation and Communications Minister Mike Halferty, who held the post for just 11 days. In a one-sentence letter of resignation, he told Nemra he was resigning “for political reasons.” Nemra in turn thanked Halferty for his “integrity and decency in writing to me personally” about his resignation.

With his cabinet increasingly in tatters, the no-confidence vote was just a matter of time. At Monday’s debate on the motion brought by the opposition coalition, Nemra, Kabua, Foreign Minister Kessai Note and other government party leaders used outrigger canoe metaphors and Marshallese terms to describe the no-confidence move as premature and unreasonable given the Nemra government’s two weeks in office. But the opposition coalition was resolute: this was a number’s game, and Nemra’s administration didn’t have the majority it needed to govern.

“Never before in our nation’s history has there been such a strongly expressed mandate for change in an election,” no-confidence introducer Sen. John Silk told the Nitijela and the nation Monday to kick off the debate. “The present government does not have such a mandate or even a majority sufficient to appoint a fully functioning cabinet. It does not have any mandate from the members of Nitijela or the Marshallese people.”

Silk said the last thing the Marshall Islands needed at a time when many pressing issues weighed heavily on the nation needing urgent attention “is a weak and ineffective government.”

Silk, correctly predicting the vote’s outcome, said Monday morning: “If the vote of no-confidence goes forward today, it will succeed.” In fact, a roll-call vote Monday to decide whether the session would recess until Tuesday or Thursday demonstrated the government’s lack of votes: Foreign Minister Note asked for an extension of time until Thursday, while the opposition called for the body to return Tuesday to conduct the vote. The government could only muster 15 votes in support of the Thursday motion, so the Nitijela reconvened Tuesday as demanded by opposition senators.

The result Tuesday: 21-12 in favor of the no-confidence motion. It was only the second successful vote of no-confidence out of eight such motions brought in Nitijela since 1998. The Constitution gives the Nitijela a 14-day window in which to elect a new president following a successful vote of no-confidence. Majuro Senator David Kramer called for convening the following day, Wednesday, to elect the president, and the body adjourned for 24-hours.

Meanwhile, the opposition coalition — soon to be the government — moved its location to local restaurants Tuesday afternoon and evening to make its final decision on the nomination for president to be put forward Wednesday at Nitijela: Dr. Hilda Heine, who also claims the distinction as the only Marshall Islander to have earned a Ph.D.

She was sworn into office on Thursday, and is expected to announce her cabinet appointments in the next few days.