Category Archives: The Marshall Islands

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.

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.

Ben Graham – Marshall Islands Elections: Big Turnover, but Bigger Challenges Ahead

This is a guest post by Ben Graham.

National elections in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in November delivered unprecedented results, with many of the 33 Nitijela (parliament) members, including some veteran politicians, losing their seats to mostly younger political novices. Unofficial results, which include postal votes from Marshallese in the US, suggest that one-third of Nitijela is out, much higher turnover than in prior elections. Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, says that voters were eager for change, with the results signaling a major political shift now underway.

Most of the newcomers are in their 40s and were popular candidates among younger voters, many of whom now use social media to express their views on key issues. The new Nitijela will also have three female members—there has never been more than one.

When it reconvenes in January, the Nitijela’s first order of business will be to select a President from among its members. Several older parliamentarians, including the incumbent President Christopher Loeak, will be jockeying for the post. But with no real political parties, no formal political platforms or agendas, and such a large number of newcomers, it is uncertain who will form the government.

The small country faces very big challenges, with climate change and economic development the most pressing. Made up entirely of low-lying coral atolls and islands, the nation faces the real possibility of extinction—even within several decades—if the worst-case sea-level rise scenarios play out. Economic assistance from the US is decrementing and set to discontinue after 2023, putting pressure on government to grow the economy and mobilize new resources. This is a struggle, despite some growth in revenues from the fishing industry. Government is also trying to accelerate contributions into a trust fund it established with the US in 2004, which should help ease the post-2023 transition, but this too has been difficult given sluggish economic and fiscal conditions.

The challenges go well beyond climate change and economics. Underperformance in healthcare, education, transportation, and environmental management, and weak financial management and control of corruption, altogether highlight the need for more responsive and effective leadership. These were among the key issues surrounding the election.
Meanwhile, thousands of citizens continue to vote with their feet. Slow development progress has led to high outmigration, with entire families reluctantly leaving the islands in search of better schools, healthcare, and jobs in the US. The population has now levelled off at just under 60,000 while around 30,000 now call the US home. The 2011 census showed a clear pattern of depopulation on many atolls.

While a new national development plan and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals provide some guidance for government, it remains to be seen whether these plans will be effectively implemented, or whether a set-it and forget-it approach (as some locals call it) will prevail. There is some optimism that the new leaders will bring a renewed sense of energy and direction, but this is highly cautious optimism.

One thing is certain: the Marshall Islands’ leaders, old and new, will certainly have their work cut out for them.

Ben Graham is a former consultant and advisor in the Marshall Islands. He is from Majuro Atoll.

Marshall Islands – A question of confidence

President of Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, last week survived his second motion of no confidence in six months. In this case, the opposition brought forward the motion on the grounds that the government had ignored proper process in its attempt to appoint Jamil el-Sayed, a Lebanese national, as its representative to UNESCO. Specifics aside, the incident raises numerous interesting questions about the nature of presidential politics in Marshall Islands, and the Pacific region more generally.

The Marshallese constitution is commonly known as a ‘hybrid’ of Westminster and Presidential systems. In reality, however, it is more Westminster or Parliamentary than it is Presidential with the President – who is also the head of state – elected by parliament and answerable to it for all government decisions. Should a motion of no confidence – passed by a simple majority on the floor of parliament – be successful then the President is deemed to have tendered their resignation.[i] Historically, this has meant that both the Speaker and the judiciary have had a significant influence on when these motions are brought forward and the procedures by which they are resolved.

What regular readers of this blog will note is that in definitional terms the Marshallese constitution does not quite fit the established typologies. In a broad sense we might call it a Semi-Presidential system but with the added feature that the functions usually ascribed to either the President or the Prime Minister are effectively undertaken by the same person. In practice, however, the Marshallese system works in much the same way as a Westminster system does, thus begging the question of whether, aside from the name of the office, it is really Presidential at all.

Definitions aside, one of the interesting features of this type of arrangement is that while, in theory, the standard Westminster formula allows political parties to guarantee the executive numbers on the floor of the house, in practice the opposite often occurs. The main reason is that while political parties exist in the Marshall Islands, they have tended to function as loose blocs rather than institutionalised machines. When combined with the relatively small size of the Marshallese Nitijela [parliament] – it has 33 members – a decision by a few parliamentarians to switch sides can bring down the government whose position is perpetually precarious.

The Marshallese experience is not unique as this feature of political life is common to both standard Westminster and hybrid constitutional systems across the Pacific. Indeed, Marshall Islands is relatively stable when compared with neighbouring Nauru, which has similar constitutional arrangements, where more than a dozen successful motions of no confidence have resulted in changes of President since independence in 1968.

To solve this instability, several countries have attempted to introduce legislation that stops MPs crossing the floor. However, it remains to be seen whether this will increase stability, as, in some cases, these mechanisms have been deemed unconstitutional. What does seem certain, however, is that the regularity of these no-confidence events will continue to sharpen calls across the region for constitutional reform that either alters Westminster to suit the Pacific context or ushers in full Presidential regimes.


[i] Stege, K. 2009. “Marshall Islands.” In Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, ed. S Levine, pp. 112-120. Wellington: Victoria University Press.