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.