Category Archives: Pacific Islands

Vanuatu – Nation mourns President Baldwin Lonsdale

The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is in mourning following the sudden death of President Baldwin Lonsdale from a suspected heart attack. Baldwin, a clergyman and the highest-ranking chief in Vanuatu’s Banks group of islands, was one of the most widely respected political figures in the country. His state funeral was attended by heads of state from Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. The Vanuatu Daily Post reported that while it was difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who lined the roughly 6-kilometre long route, there has been no similar public gathering in living memory.

Baldwin took over the largely ceremonial role in September 2014 but it was his handling of the 2015 corruption scandal (discussed previously on this blog) that elevated his standing in the eyes of the nation. The unprecedented case saw 15 MPs tried and convicted of bribery. But, when the convictions were handed down, President Lonsdale was out of the country. In his absence, the Speaker of the House – one of those convicted – was Acting Head of State, and used his powers to pardon himself and his co-defendants.

Returning to Vanuatu, a visibly shaken Lonsdale addressed the nation expressing “shame and sorrow” at what had occurred, stated that “no-one is above the law”, and promised to “clean the dirt from my backyard.” He subsequently revoked the pardons – a move that was then appealed, and upheld – and the MPs went to prison. He also dissolved Parliament and called a snap election. The case was a landmark event for Vanuatu. The convictions sent a clear message to political actors that the types of money politics that had been common in the post-independence era were no longer acceptable.

The election of the new President of the Republic of Vanuatu will be held on July 3, 2017. As outlined previously on the blog, the Electoral College that will vote a new President is made up of the 52 Members of Parliament, the Presidents of the Local Government Councils of the six provinces and mayors of the three municipalities of the country.

Presidential Profile – Hilda Heine, the first woman to head an independent Pacific Islands state

As President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Dr Hilda Heine is the first woman to head an independent Pacific Islands state. She is one of only three women in the 33 member Nitijela (parliament). In the Marshalls, the President is elected by the members of the Nitijela in a way similar to the Westminster model of choosing a Prime Minister. Dr Heine became President in January 2016 with the support of 24 senators, including two of her own cousins. In a small country such as the Marshall Islands (pop. 53,000 in 2011), family ties are central to processes of being elected and forming government. Dr Heine’s own brother, the late Carl Heine, was politically active and served multiple terms in the Nitijela himself.

The Heine family are descended from missionaries and have a strong commitment to education. Hilda Heine was the first and only Marshallese to be awarded a Doctorate in Education. She has had a distinguished career in education, working for the Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) program at the University of Hawai’Ii, and serving as a classroom teacher, President of the College of the Marshall Islands, Secretary of Education and Minster of Education in the Marshall Islands.

Dr Heine’s educational attainments and management experience mean that she is held in high regard as a senior leader of the country, even though she lacks the chiefly lineage that has typified most Marshallese presidents. As President, Hilda Heine is admired for her consultative and inclusive leadership and her ability to make decisions and see them through to implementation. In her fifteen months in office, she has revisited a number of long term national challenges, including climate change, the legacy of ill-health and environmental contamination left by American nuclear testing and ongoing issues of poverty, economic development and emigration to the United States.

In a region characterised by low numbers of women in politics, Dr Heine’s election is something of a watershed. In many ways, she is an exceptional individual: highly educated, having an impressive record of professional experience, and coming from a politically engaged family. These qualities will be difficult to match for other women (or men) seeking to run for office, although they do reflect the qualities of most successful politicians in the Pacific (Corbett and Liki 2015).

Despite, Dr Heine’s exceptional qualities, several factors within the Marshall Islands context make it a place where we should not be surprised to see women in leadership. Traditionally, Marshallese society had a high view of women, especially as land owners, and today the female chiefly office of leroij is maintained alongside the male iroij. This traditional leadership appears to have translated well into modern systems. Many senior public servants are women, including nearly half of the departmental Secretaries.

There is a strong contemporary women’s movement in the Marshall Islands. Along with other women, Dr Heine founded Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), a vibrant and well-established women’s NGO that runs a range of programs designed “to advance the causes and improve the lives of Marshallese women and their families” (www.wutmi.com). Over many years, WUTMI has provided an organisational structure that has allowed women to make common cause and articulate their needs and concerns in the public domain, often drawing on traditional sayings about the role of women. While not directly involved in campaigning for women in politics, these processes have legitimised Marshallese women’s leadership and paved the way for the success of Dr Heine and other women politicians.

Dr John Cox is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

France – The 2017 Presidential Election in the French Pacific Territories

Delivering a speech in French Polynesia during a visit to the French Pacific territories last year, outgoing President François Hollande said: “France is everywhere in the world. And when they say we go to the end of the world, I say: ‘No. We go to the end of France’.” France’s global footprint due to its overseas territories is extensive – les départements et collectivités d’outre-mer, as they are known, give France a presence in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Geographically remote and with relatively small populations, France’s overseas territories are often ignored in presidential elections, but the recent unrest in Guiana has brought them to the fore this year.

The three Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna – have a combined population of under 600,000, less than 1% of the total French population. Residents of the territories have full French citizenship, including the right to vote in French presidential (as well as European) elections, and each territory elects representatives to the French National Assembly and Senate. In French presidential elections, there is traditionally low turnout in the overseas territories. The French Pacific is no exception; French Polynesia recorded turnouts in 2012 of just 49% in round one and 59% in round two. Low turnout is perhaps to be expected given the geographical distance involved, although the most remote territory, Wallis and Futuna, usually records the highest turnout. Another factor is the deliberate boycotting of presidential elections by pro-independence groups in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Independence remains a very salient issue in the French Pacific in this year’s presidential election, with a referendum on independence scheduled to be held in New Caledonia in 2018. Anti-independence groups in New Caledonia generally align themselves with the major French conservative party (now The Republicans), while those pro-independence groups that do involve themselves with French politics tend to back the Socialist Party, in the belief that they are more sympathetic to the secessionist cause. While Nicolas Sarkozy – with a notoriously anti-independence stance in regards to New Caledonia – won significant support in the first round conservative primary there, François Fillon still won far more support in New Caledonia during the primaries than in the other French territories, winning 78% of the second-round vote in New Caledonia (Fillon lost in both Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, in the latter winning just a 5% share in the first round). After the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal which has threatened to sink his candidacy, several key political figures of the right in New Caledonia withdrew their support for Fillon, but others have rallied behind the candidate.

This is important, as the success or failure of French presidential aspirants in the territories often says more about local politics than national politics. The endorsements of local political leaders are often crucial to the outcome – which is watched closely by observers for what it says about the popularity of these local figures, rather than the candidates themselves. For example, in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Hilarion Vendegou – chief, local mayor, and a New Caledonian representative in the French Senate – endorsed Fillon in the primaries who went on to win both rounds in the locality easily.

In French Polynesia, there has been much horse-trading amongst political leaders on who to support. Gaston Flosse – a dominant figure in French Polynesian politics for over 30 years, now barred from holding public office until 2019 due to a conviction for corruption – initially supported Sarkozy, then Fillon, before eventually endorsing Marine Le Pen. Claiming this was on the basis of her support for greater autonomy for French Polynesia, he stressed this was not an endorsement of her party, but rather her as an individual. Eduoard Fritch – current President of French Polynesia, and Flosse’s former son-in-law and protégé – initially supported Alain Juppé, and has now backed Fillon despite voicing criticism of his plans to cut public service spending and vagueness on territorial issues (Fillon has said the cuts will not affect overseas territories).

Meanwhile, former French Polynesian President and the most prominent pro-independence figure in the territory, Oscar Temaru, attempted to stand in the presidential election to raise awareness of the pro-independence cause in French Polynesia. While he did not reach the threshold of endorsements needed to run, he gained the most support from elected officials in both French Polynesia and New Caledonia of any aspiring candidate. After failing to secure enough support to run, he advised his supporters to boycott the election.

Of course, neither of the two highest-polling candidates going into the first round of polling are candidates from the two major political parties, meaning the political landscape – and what this means for the French Pacific – is uncharted territory. Le Pen visited the Pacific in 2013, and has voiced support for greater territorial autonomy and compensation for nuclear testing, as well as promising a greater focus on territorial issues. The National Front’s deputy leader visited the Pacific in December 2016 and promised to respect the provisions for an independence referendum for New Caledonia under the 1998 Noumea Accord. More recently, Le Pen has responded to the protests in Guiana, emphasising her key campaign messages on law and order, security and immigration. While the party has made a concerted effort to attract voters from the territories in this election, they have historically polled far lower in the Pacific territories than in mainland France (although significantly higher in New Caledonia than in either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna).

Macron’s understanding of territorial issues has seemed shaky at times; in March, he wrongly referred to Guiana as an “island”. On recent visits to the territories of Réunion and Mayotte he has, however, promised subsidised airfares to increase links between the territories and mainland France, as well as an ambitious economic development plan. His position on New Caledonia’s political future is unclear; as Philippe Gomès, former President of New Caledonia and current representative in the French National Assembly,has said: “We do not really know his DNA.”

Whoever wins the 2017 presidential election will play a key role in determining future political statuses in the French Pacific. They will have to deal with the impending referendum on independence in New Caledonia as well as calls for greater autonomy intensifying in French Polynesia. Thus, the ramifications of the 2017 vote will extend right to the end of the France.

Palau – Remengesau narrowly retains office

While the world’s attention had been focused on the US presidential election, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean the island nation of Palau (population, 20,000), formerly part of the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, also went to the polls. But, where the US appears to have voted for unprecedented change, the people of Palau have opted for stability, returning President Tommy Remengesau for a record fourth term.

The election was interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that Remengesau was running against his brother-in-law, Sen. Surangel Whipps Jr., but also because of how close the ballot was. In the end, the unofficial tally has Remengesau on 5,109 votes while Whipps received 4,854 (In the vice presidential race, Arnold Oilouch is leading with 5,196 votes against Yositaka Adachi who had 4,643 votes). But, this was only decided after a protracted count in which around 3000 absentee votes from Palauan’s living overseas proved crucial. Reflecting this, Remengesau stated on his Facebook page that:

“This campaign required a strong and organized grassroots movement that needed to reach out to the thousands of Palauans here at home and many more thousands of our fellow Palauans living abroad. Throughout my life and career as your grassroots candidate, I have never been through an election such as this. It took so much to get this far, and I am sure you and your family feel the same way. The longest and costliest campaign in our history required us to keep up with the unprecedented campaign efforts of our opponents.”

Remengesau is the eighth President of the Republic of Palau, and the first to be elected for four times. This is not the first political record he has set, however. He was also the youngest ever Palauan Senator when first elected aged 28. He was elected Vice President in 1992 and 1996. He served two terms as President from 2000-2008, stood down to serve as a Senator from 2008-2012 due to a two-term constitutional limit, before being re-elected again in 2012 and now 2016. His father was also Vice President and President of Palau. Outside Palau, Remengesau is best known for championing environmental causes, including establishing a significant portion of Palau’s territorial waters as a marine sanctuary.

Palau – Women’s Representation and the Presidential Primary

On 29 September, Palau held its presidential primary race to determine which two candidates will face off against each other when the country goes to the polls on 1 November. Four candidates contested the primary election: incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Jr.; incumbent Vice-President Antonio Bells; former Vice-President and incumbent Senator Sandra Pierantozzi; and incumbent Senator Surangel Whipps Jr. In the primary, favourite Remengesau led with 49 per cent of votes cast, followed by Whipps with 39 per cent; Pierantozzi and Bells were eliminated.

With two challengers eliminated, the presidential contest is now between two brothers-in-law, as Whipps is married to Remengeseau’s sister. Remengeseau noted that it was unusual for such close relatives to be contesting against each other: “It’s certainly not in our culture, and it’s very unusual because if you follow our culture you are not supposed to be running against a family member.” Yet, while it may be unusual, it is certainly not unprecedented. Pierantozzi initially won the vice-presidency after contesting against her nephew, and commentator Bernadette Carreon noted its inevitability in small island politics: “It’s a small nation, everyone is related to each other, so I think it’s just the way it is.” Going into the 1 November election having collected around half of the primary votes cast, Remengesau appears the favourite to win.

This year has been a milestone for women’s political representation in Micronesia and the wider Pacific. In January, Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands became the first female head of government in the Pacific Islands region when she won the presidency. In March, long-serving member of the Samoan Parliament Fiame Naomi Mata’afa became the country’s (and Polynesia’s) first female Deputy Prime Minister. Palau is at the bottom of the world’s league table in terms of women’s representation, with no women in its lower house, although there are three female Senators in its upper house.

The 2016 primary election marked the second attempt at the presidency for Pierantozzi, who came third in the 2012 primary with 18 per cent of the vote. She is a well-known figure in Palauan politics, having previously served as Vice-President from 2001 to 2005. In her 2016 presidential bid, Pierantozzi highlighted economic growth as a key election issue. She also stressed the importance of increasing the number of women in Palau politics. While the presidential election will be an all-male affair – Pierantozzi again came third, although her vote share of 9 per cent was half of what she had received in 2012 – she was hopeful of women’s representation increasing in November in the House and Senate. Women make up a quarter of the 24 candidates contesting for the 13-seat Senate, and among the 33 candidates for the 16 House of Delegates seats, there are six women contesting five seats (including one running unopposed). While the highest glass ceiling for women in Palau won’t be cracked at this election, there is promise that the Senate and House of Delegates contests will result in real gains for women’s representation in the country.

Nauru – Waqa government re-elected

Nauru went to the polls on 9 July and returned Baron Waqa’s government for another term. The Pacific island nation has a population of roughly 10,000 (around 8000 registered voters) who elect 19 MPs for three-year terms from multi-seat constituencies by majority vote. There is no formal party system with parliament effectively made-up of 19 independent members. Because Nauru’s president is both head of government and head of state Waqa was re-elected to the post on the floor of parliament by 16 MPs.

Two election observer teams – one from the Pacific Islands Forum and another from the Commonwealth Secretariat – declared the election free and fair, and commended the high voter turnout. It was reportedly the first time in more than a decade that Nauruan elections had been monitored by international observers.

One reason for the heightened interest is that much of the media discussion in the lead up to the election centred on the creeping authoritarianism of the Waqa government (see this blog). Opposition MPs had previously been suspended from parliament – those under house arrest claimed their campaigning activities were curtailed – media commentary was sanctioned and foreign journalists effectively prohibited from entering the country due to high visa fees, and amendments to the criminal code made expressions of ‘political hatred’ punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. Some candidates had their employment contracts terminated – a move commonly believed to be government initiated. The fee for candidate nomination was also hiked to a level that made it prohibitive for many aspirant politicians. This latter measure was contested in Nauru’s Supreme Court, leading to the government eventually dropping the fee from $2000 to $500 (it had previously been $100).

The government has been quick to claim the result as a ringing endorsement of their record and plan for Nauru’s future. In the aftermath of the result Justice Minister David Adeang accused the international media of beating up the accusations against his government as a means of undermining the operation of the Australian Government’s offshore asylum seeker processing centre currently housed on the island. Three of the MPs who had been suspended from the last parliament – Former President Sprent Dabwido, Squire Jeremiah and Mathew Batsiua – lost their seats. Another, Roland Kun, chose not to stand – he has since been granted a New Zealand passport on humanitarian grounds (his Nauruan passport had previously been confiscated on the grounds that he had taken part in anti-government protests and had spoken out against the government in the international media).

Despite the government’s triumphalist tone, this story has a long way left to run. The Australian Federal Police confirmed a week after the election that they were still investigating Getax, the Australian phosphate dealer at the heart of an alleged political corruption scandal. Having left Nauru, Kun is said to be a key witness in that investigation. Needless to say, this is an interesting time in Nauruan politics.

 

Stewart Firth – Nauru: The Retreat from Democracy and the Coming Election

This is a guest post by Stewart Firth, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Since the election of Nauru’s latest President, Baron Waqa, in 2013, democracy and the rule of law in that country have been under threat. The new government moved quickly to remove key members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, who was not permitted to re-enter the country after foreign travel. A crackdown on media freedom followed, with foreign journalists effectively excluded by a prohibitive visa fee of US$5,000, and a ban placed on Facebook in order to check criticism of the government. An amendment to the criminal code in 2015 makes the expression of ‘political hatred’, that is to say, disagreement with the government, an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

As previously reported on Presidential Power, three opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament for ‘talking too much to foreign media’ and bringing their country into disrepute. Since then a further two opposition MPs in the Parliament of 19 have been permanently suspended, leaving a rump of 12 to conduct Nauru’s business. As the 2016 election approaches, the Nauru government is using Parliament to suppress candidature: public servants must now resign three months before the election, and the fee for standing as a candidate has jumped from US$74 to US$1,500.

This creeping authoritarianism has little to do, however, with the institution of the Presidency in Nauru. The Nauru Presidency is a Westminster phenomenon, and the President resembles a prime minister. Under Article 16, 2 of the Nauru constitution, ‘A person is not qualified to be elected President unless he is a member of Parliament.’ Parliament elects the President of Nauru after each election, he or she sits in a Cabinet that is formed from Parliament and is collectively responsible to it, and may be removed along with other ministers on a vote of no confidence.

What has mattered in recent years in Nauru has been the Cabinet, not the President. In fact most observers think the author of Nauru’s retreat from democracy is not President Waqa but instead his Justice Minister David Adeang. Nauru hosts Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre, and Adeang has seized the opportunity created by Australia’s dependence on his country to amass power and suppress dissent, secure in the knowledge that Canberra will offer little criticism. New Zealand has suspended much of its aid to Nauru in protest. Australia has not.

Wouter Veenendaal – Microstate Foreign Policy: How Much Leeway for Presidents?

This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)

On 18 December 2015, James Alix Michel was reelected as President of Seychelles, defeating his opponent by a razor-thin margin of 0,30 per cent, or 193 votes. Michel’s election victory ensured that the Parti Lepep (People’s Party), which had been in office since its coup d’état of 1977, will remain in power in the archipelago. While multiparty democracy was reinstated in Seychelles in the early 1990s, putting an end to the Marxist single-party regime, the ruling party has won all subsequent elections. It has now been in power for almost 40 years.

Michel’s election victory was contested by the opposition, which cried foul over alleged irregularities. Commonwealth observers, however, noted that the fundamental rights of candidates, political parties, and the electorate had been respected. Regardless of whether the recent Seychellois election was fair or not, the outcome means that no major political changes can be expected in the island archipelago. This is especially true for foreign policy, which, as in other small island states, appears to be largely (pre-) determined by the country’s weakness and relative insignificance within the international system.

As actors in international relations, small states are typically considered to be vulnerable and dependent. Their survival rests on the benevolence of larger states, as a result of which small countries do not have the capacity to develop a foreign policy of their own; they are regarded as mere ‘objects’ in world politics. The extent to which individual leaders in small states can influence the foreign policies of their countries is thus considered to be inherently limited. The case of Seychelles appears to support this view: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 necessitated a drastic reorientation towards the West, which was entirely motivated by a change in the international system.

In fact, however, the smallest countries in the world (so-called microstates) often act in remarkable and rather exceptional ways in global politics. Together, Caribbean and Pacific island nations for instance constitute the bulk of states that recognize the international sovereignty of Taiwan, and the Pacific microstates of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu were among the first and only countries to extend diplomatic recognition to the Caucasian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Out of the nine states that in 2012 opposed Palestine’s bid to become a United Nations observer state, five were Pacific small island states. How can these foreign policy choices be explained? The answer is: money.

The examples above highlight that microstates often make strategic use of their sovereignty, negotiating their political support in exchange for material gains. In return for diplomatic recognition, Taiwan, for example, develops ICT facilities, provides police cars, or constructs new government buildings in various small island states. As a token for its continuing support for the People’s Republic, in 2008 China, on the other hand, constructed a new parliament building for Seychelles, and recently donated two aircraft to the archipelago. And in exchange for Nauru’s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian government bestowed this Pacific island nation with US $31 million in hard cash.

Whereas Seychelles has been steadfast in its support for Beijing, other microstates have occasionally shifted their diplomatic recognition. The Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, for example, recognized Taiwan between 1984 and 1997, but then withdrew its recognition and established relations with China instead. In 2005, the St. Lucian government decided to reestablish its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Microstates like St. Lucia thus take part in the so-called two-China game, in which they essentially award their diplomatic support to the highest bidder. Instead of having a passive and submissive role in international politics, these countries therefore actively and successfully make gains by playing off two large powers against each other. The examples also demonstrate that small states often do have a range of foreign policy options to choose from, which supposedly gives more leeway to presidents and political leaders in crafting the foreign policies of their countries.

Another example is provided by the Micronesian island nation of Palau, which became independent from the United States in 1994. A large share of the public finances of Palau is derived from its Compact of Free Association with the United States, and it is hardly a surprise that Palau’s voting behavior in the United Nations General Assembly overlaps by over 97% with that of the US. In addition, in 2009 the Palauan President Johnson Toribiong came to the aid of Washington by agreeing to provide shelter to 19 Uyghurs who had been released from the Guantánamo Bay detention center, and under US law could not be returned to China. In exchange for financial aid, Palau, therefore, willingly plays the role of staunch US ally in the international system.

In addition to the United States, Palau maintains close ties with Taiwan (which provided crucial disaster relief after a typhoon had hit the island) and Japan (which constructed the Japan-Palau friendship bridge between Palau’s two largest islands). Although Palau, in exchange for economic assistance, always supported Japan’s position on whale hunting in international fora, in 2012 President Toribiong suddenly dropped this support, arguing that whaling is incompatible with Palau’s support for nature conservation. In a similar fashion, newly elected Palauan President Remengesau recently made some cautious statements about potential cooperation with China, raising suspicions in Taiwan and the US. These examples demonstrate that political leaders of even the smallest states can and do strategically influence or pressure larger countries.

In an upcoming article in Foreign Policy Analysis, I argue that the international relations between microstates and large powers can, in many ways, be seen as a patron-client linkage, in which political support is exchanged for material gains. Just like clientelism in a domestic context, from a normative perspective such relations can be denounced as opportunistic, immoral, or even corrupt. On the other hand, for microstates these relations offer unique opportunities to make the most of their sovereignty, and to independently position themselves in international affairs. While presidents of small island nations still only have a very limited range of foreign policy options, the presence of multiple potential patron states – and their growing number since the end of the Cold War – does give political leaders of microstates some say about their countries’ foreign relations.

Dr. Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, The Netherlands. His research focuses on politics, democracy, and governance in small states, and he is presently part of a larger academic project that investigates non-sovereign territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Kiribati – New President Taneti Maamau elected

Kiribati went to the polls again last week to elect Taneti Maamau as their new Beretitenti or President. Under the two round runoff electoral system presidential candidates are nominated by members of the Maneaba ni Maungatabu (parliament) and then compete in a nation wide ballot. Maamau ran against two candidates from the ruling Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) party, Rimeta Beniamina and Tianeti Ioane, eventually winning more than 20,000 votes. The President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government.

Maamau is the fifth president of Kiribati since the country became independent in 1979. As outlined previously on this blog, Kiribati’s stability is an anomaly in a region where votes-of-no-confidence regularly topple governments. Constitutional provisions that ensure votes-of-no-confidence automatically trigger full elections are a key reason why this mechanism is rarely used in Kiribati.

Maamau’s election is significant for a number of reasons:

First, it brings an end to 12 years of BTK rule under the leadership of former President, Anote Tong. Tong had served the maximum three terms allowable under the Kiribati constitution. His advocacy work on climate change issues in particular had thrust the tiny island nation into the international spotlight. In recognition of this achievement Tong was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, the new Beretitenti will initially lead a minority coalition of 20 MPs. The BTK Opposition will have 25 MPs. Holding the new government together while attracting disgruntled MPs from the BTK is likely to be a key feature of Maamau’s first year in office. Indeed, the Coalition have expressed their confidence in winning over new members, with former President, Teburoro Tito, telling Radio New Zealand International that:

“We know that we may not work too hard to attract some of these people form the other party because they have already made indications when the election of the speaker was conducted some weeks back. So we think it is not going to be an insurmountable task for us to get numbers on our side.”

Tito’s confidence reflects the high personalised nature of Kiribati politics and the fact that political parties play a minor role in mobilizing voters. In this context being a member of government offers MPs greater access to resources that, if used effectively, can improve their re-election chances.

Third, the new government has been quick to claim a mandate for change. The nature of this change and the means by which it will achieved remains somewhat unclear. At the very least Maamau’s election represents something of a generational shift with the independence generation of politicians being slowly replaced by a new cohort of leaders. Its not that they are all gone – past presidents Tito and Tabai remain in parliament and the former is likely to be a key figure in Maamau’s government despite not holding a ministerial portfolio – but the baton is being passed on. Given the economic and social challenges that confront the island nation this is a sizable responsibility for the new man in charge and his cabinet.

Marshall Islands – Hilda Heine elected as the Pacific region’s first ever female president

A tumultuous week in Marshallese politics ended last Wednesday with the election of the country (and the region’s) first ever female president, Hilda Heine. The machinations that catapulted Heine to the top job began on Tuesday with the ousting of recently elected President, Casten Nemra, who had served only two weeks of his term, the shortest presidency in the history of Marshall Islands, by a successful vote-of-no-confidence. As previously outlined on this blog, votes-of-no-confidence are a common method by which leaders are replaced in the Westminster-inspired legislatures of the Pacific. And, despite holding the title “President” the Marshallese head of state is nonetheless elected from the floor of parliament.

Nemra was a controversial choice by virtue of his being both the youngest ever Marshallese president and only the second elected to the position from a non-chiefly or commoner background. Heine’s election, however, represents a further break from this tradition. Family ties were the key to her victory. In early January Kwajalein Senator and Iroij (chief) Michael Kabua was said to have orchestrated Nemra’s one-vote victory as president. The key to this power play was the defection of the three Heine family members — all cabinet ministers during the past four years — to the opposition.

The Mariana’s Variety describes the machinations that resulted from this in the following terms:

“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.”

Heine is used to being the first; she is also the first Marshallese to gain a doctorate. Having spent much of her career in education, she was unsuccessful in her initial attempts to gain a seat in the Nitijela but eventually won election in 2011 representing Aur Atoll. She was subsequently made Minister of Education. On Wednesday she was the sole presidential candidate, eventually securing 24 of a possible 33 votes.

As the first woman to be elected head of government to an independent Pacific nation Heine’s rise to power represents an historic moment for the region. Most Pacific Island countries have only a handful of women MPs (some have none at all) giving it the unfortunate tag of the worst region in the world for women’s representation. In the recent Vanuatu election, for example, only eight women stood and none were successful. There have been high profile exceptions to this trend, including Vice President of Palau, Sandra Pierantozzi and Vice President of Kiribati, Teima Onorio. But, none have made it to the top job before Heine.

Ben Graham outlined last month how the Marshall Islands faces considerable development challenges. Addressing these systemic issues whilst maintaining the fluctuating support of the Nitijela will be a difficult balancing act. All of which means that Heine will have her work cut out for her.