Category Archives: Federated States of Micronesia

FSM – Elections to shape the future of the federation

On March 3 2015 the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia went to the polls to elect the 19th Congress. FSM spans an enormous ocean territory and so the logistics of conducting a ballot that includes large overseas communities in Guam, Hawaii and the mainland United States makes this an incredible undertaking. The official result has taken time to trickle through but, as usual, most of the fourteen seats were hotly contested.

The key issue for the campaign was a proposal by the Chuuk Political Status Commission to include in the ballot a vote for Chuukese independence. In effect, it would have set the wheels in motion for Chuuk to become a country in its own right. The motivations for this proposed breakaway movement are complex and deeply felt (Fran Hezel, long-time observer of Micronesian politics, has provided his views here). Ultimately, the proposed vote was removed from the ballot a week before the election to allow more time for voters to consider the issue. But, the matter will cast a long shadow over the deliberations of the 19th Congress and the choice of President in particular.

FSM has a unique federal system that reflects the history of its founding from the remnants of the United State Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (some of my other posts on this can be found here). The fourteen congressional seats are divided between the four states: Chuuk, the largest and most populous state elects six members. Pohnphei, the seat of the national capital elects four. The smaller states of Yap and Kosrae elect two each. Things get more complicated, however, as there are two types of seats, with each state electing one member for a four-year term and the others for two-year terms. Aside from longer tenure, those elected to four year ‘at large’ seats are also eligible for nomination to the Presidency.

There are no political parties in FSM and so the key to the Presidency is the voting blocks of each state. Indeed, many of the provisions in the FSM constitution were designed to counter the potential dominance of the Chuukese representatives. So, the Chuukese ‘at large’ Senator requires the votes of at least one other state to become president. Or, the other three states have to join together to elect a candidate from among their number.

The Presidency of FSM has been held for the last two-terms by Manny Mori, a Chuukese representative. But, a constitutionally mandated term limit means that FSM will have a new President in 2015. Exactly who that might be is unclear. Mori’s Vice President, Alik Alik, contested the ‘at large seat’ for Kosrae. Veteran Senator Peter Christian is the favourite for Pohnpei and former Senator Joseph Urusemal will be elected unopposed in Yap. The two candidates for Chuuk are Wesley Simina, the incumbent, and Gillian Doone.

The future of the union and the Chuukese independence movement are likely to be a key consideration for the newly elected Senators when they come to decide on who will become president. By convention, senior positions – presidency, vice presidency, speaker – have been shared between the states. But, would a return to the presidency assuage Chuukese grievances? Would a Pohnpeian presidency inflame them? Or, in the current climate, is a compromise candidate from Yap or Kosrae the best course? All of these questions and more will be on the table ahead of the first meeting of the new Congress on May 11 2015. The stakes are always high with these decisions – careers, reputations and of course national development policies are on the line – but this time around the possibility of secession means they assume greater than usual importance.

Federated States of Micronesia – Tosiwo Nakayama and the founding of a regime

Typically social scientists think of regimes as being the product of underlying structural forces that shape institutions and subsequent political practices. However, David Hanlon’s recent biography of the inaugural president of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Tosiwo Nakayama, reminds us that the nature and character of a regime is rarely preordained.[i] Rather, it is the product of a negotiated settlement between human actors; individuals can and do make history.

The 1975 Micronesian constitutional convention brought together delegates in Saipan from all corners of the then United States’ administered United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to debate the region’s future political status. Today, we refer to these island-nations as small states but, as Hanlon reminds us, while their population and landmass may be small when compared with other countries, the region they inhabit is vast and diverse (more ‘Macro’ than ‘Micro’). Given 90 days, they were tasked with drafting and agreeing on a constitution. From the outset, logistical challenges combined with the competing interests and agendas of each delegation worked against unity. The people of the Northern Mariana Islands had already entered into separate political status talks with the United States. Furthermore, the announcement that parts of Micronesia stood to gain financially from continued United States military involvement in the region meant that the Marshallese and Palauan delegations were increasingly convinced that they would get a better deal if they negotiated alone. Despite the odds being stacked against a unified constitution, agreement was reached at the 11th hour. Throughout, Hanlon describes Nakayama, the president of the convention, as humbly, persistently and strategically building consensus through compromise and concession.

Nakayama was elected unopposed as the inaugural president of FSM. In my last post I discussed the background profile of those who hold this office. In many ways Nakayama conforms to that portrait. Born to a Japanese father and a Micronesian mother, Nakayama followed a path well trodden by leaders of his generation, first to the Pacific Islands Central School and later to the University of Hawaii. This trajectory aided the work of the convention, as many of the delegates were his former classmates. He worked for the Trust Territory administration, entered politics via the Truk District legislature and later the Congress of Micronesia where he made his mark as Senate President, thus showcasing his talents and building support for his presidency of the convention. A modernist and a quiet but forceful critic of United States rule, Nakayama was a vocal advocate of Micronesian unity.

The FSM that Nakayama brought into being did not include all of the states present at the 1975 convention – Marshall Islands and Palau ultimately did decide to go it alone – but four remained; from west to east they are Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. The concessions required to gain agreement for the constitution – the main concern of delegates was that the new national government would overwhelm its constituent states – meant that significant power remains with the states and as a result the federation has been described as ‘loose’ with national government subject to ‘all checks and no balances’.[ii] Certainly, Nakayama’s two terms in office (the maximum number allowed for by the constitution) were marked by increasing tensions between state and national government. There are no political parties in the unicameral Congress with members drawn from their respective states who, when electing a president, tend to vote in blocs. As a result, Hanlon illustrates, the president’s most important constituency is the Congress who puts them in power.

Negotiations about the distribution of power between the states and the national government have continued since 1975. There have been two subsequent constitutional conventions – 1990 and 2001 – in which agreement was sought for changes that would ease conflict between the two levels of government. However, no amendments were passed. One interpretation is that this supports the orthodox view that once instituted the rules of any regime are virtually impossible to change; they rarely bend but must be broken and a new regime founded (and rumblings of succession persist in FSM). The other is that it endorses the work of the 1975 convention and the constitution it created. In either case, as Hanlon maintains, without Nakayama it is highly unlikely that these institutions would exist in their current form.

[i] Hanlon, D. (2014). Making Micronesia: A Political Biography of Tosiwo Nakayama. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

[ii] Underwood, R. (2006). “Micronesian political structures and US models: lessons taught and lessons learned” The Journal of Pacific Studies 29 (1): 4-24

Federated States of Micronesia – What does it take to become President?

We generally accept that it takes a combination of talent and social capital, hard work and endeavour, and some help from the goddess Fortuna, to become a President. The Pacific Islands region is no different. In this post I explore the profile of Presidents in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and focus on common characteristics – family background, education and career[i] – in their pre-political trajectories, to build a picture of what it takes to reach the top job.

There have been seven presidents of FSM since the late 1970s. They serve for four-year terms but only the first President, Tosiwo Nakayama, completed the maximum of two terms. President Bailey Olter won a second term but could not complete it due to ill health and the current President, Emanuel Mori, is serving his second term.

Ron Crocombe argues that politicians in the Pacific have tended to be the sons and daughters of either traditional leaders or those who held positions with the colonial administration (and often a combination of both).[ii] While this may be a general trend, what makes FSM different is that the President is elected by the 14 Members of Congress from among their number and so, in the absence of political parties, the division of seats between the 4 states – 6 members are elected from Chuuk State, 4 from Phonpei State, and 2 each from Yap State and Kosrae State – heavily influences who ends up in the top job as a candidate must secure a combination of state votes to get elected. Members of smaller states have become President (Presidents John Haglelgam and Joseph Urusemal from Yap and President Jacob Nena from Kosrae) but linkages between states matter. For example, it is commonly recalled that the 2nd President, John Haglelgam of Yap state, received support from Chuuk State on the strength of his wife being Chuukese.

Across the Pacific politicians tend to have atypical education backgrounds in the sense that they posses much higher qualifications than the average voter. Education infers status and respect, and voters also want politicians who understand how government works. Many received scholarships to undertake further studies and several key educational institutions feature repeatedly in the background of FSM Presidents, including Xavier High School and the University of Hawaii.

A background in public administration is the most common pre-political background in the Pacific and FSM is no different with most Presidents having spent some time employed by either the colonial administration – the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands – or a combination of post-colonial institutions in the FSM. Presidents Nena (Kosrae) and Leo Falcam (Phonpei) were state governors before entering the national congress. Graduating from the position of vice-president is also not uncommon, with Presidents Olter, Nena and Falcam having served in both positions. By convention, key posts (President, Vice-President, Speaker etc.) are divided between the 4 states each term.

Combined, this brief profile paints a picture of pre-political pathways dominated by elites with an above average education and extensive political and administrative experience. However, in this sense they are not vastly different to most Members of Congress who share similar attributes. Increasingly, it costs large sums of money to get elected to Congress in the first place. From there, hard work and natural talent also plays its part, as does the guiding hand of Fortuna.

[i] For more in depth biographies see:

[ii] Crocombe, R. (2008). The South Pacific. Suva, Fiji: IPS Publications.