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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 211-216

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Marshall Islands

Micronesia in Review: Issues and Events, 1 July 1999 to 30 June 2000

The Republic of the Marshall Islands' most dramatic political upheaval occurred in November 1999 with the first national election of the post- Amata Kabua era. The governing party, in power since constitutional government began in 1979, was rejected by Marshall Islanders and replaced by the former opposition party. The United Democratic Party, a coalition of former ministers ousted by Imata Kabua in the aftermath of the defeat of gambling legislation in 1998, joined forces with opposition leaders to run on a platform of anti-corruption, transparency, and accountability.

In nearly every way this election broke new ground. Unlike elections of the past, votes were tallied in public and at record speed, and the nation's radio station broadcast results throughout the night. Individuals used the Internet to spread the news instantly across the ocean, on a near hourly basis. Winning a majority of seats, even those of four of six long-term cabinet ministers, the United Democratic Party gained control of the Nitijela (parliament).

Most surprising were the defeats of Ministers Tony deBrum (Finance), and Phillip Muller (Foreign Affairs and Trade), both four-term officials who in previous elections garnered top numbers of Majuro votes. As the dominant leaders of the nation, particularly since Amata Kabua's death in 1996, their defeat points to the extreme dissatisfaction of Majuro voters, who elected opposition leaders in record numbers, most notably Wilfred Kendall and Witten Philippo. In other seats, even first-time politicians were elected over incumbents, including some of traditional iroij (chief) status. John Silk beat Iroij Mamoru Kabua (Ebon Atoll), Abacca Anjain-Maddison won against Minister Johnsay Riklon (Rongelap), and Mike Konelios defeated Lomes McKay (Maloelap). Senator Anjain-Maddison is the only woman to currently serve in the Nitijela.

In January, the Nitijela unanimously elected as its president Kessai Note, a third-term senator and former Speaker from Bikini. The nation's first commoner to serve as president, Note [End Page 211] distinguishes himself by shunning the title His Excellency and driving his own car. Yet, he maintains the respect of his past opponents. During the presidential nomination process, Imata Kabua, in a conciliatory gesture, closed the process after Note's nomination (MIJ, 7 Jan 2000, 21). Note's prior position as Speaker was filled by Iroij and Senator Litokwa Tomeing; his ten-member cabinet consists of eight new ministers, including three who are first time senators.

Two significant events prior to the elections provided fuel for United Democratic Party fire. First, the government party had once again boycotted the August 1999 session of the Nitijela. United Democratic Party members appeared daily, despite the government party's absence. The politicians' absences angered constituents, particularly public sector employees. When the session ended without the quorum required to pass a national budget for fiscal year 2000, antagonisms only grew. Second, hospital workers organized in protest of political interference in the hiring and firing of hospital administrators and employees (MIJ, 3 Sept 1999, 1). In the nation's first strike, the government's initial reactions were to fire hospital leaders and threaten other workers' jobs. In response, health-care workers gathered outside the nation's capital to hold signs and banners calling for the resignation of the health minister and reform of the Public Service Commission.

No news of the strike was broadcast on national radio, but word of it spread rapidly. Ultimately the strikers sought a compromise with the health minister. The strike was unprecedented for the public expression of discontent and the direct attack on particular government leaders. The absence of serious repercussions for those involved strengthened the resolve of a general public often reluctant to directly express criticism, particularly of powerful government leaders. The strike is an extended example of what began during the gambling legislation debates of 1998 as an organized public outcry against the will of a few dominant individuals (Walsh 1999).

The shift in political power and the focus on accountability has strengthened the trend of greater public acknowledgment of silent...