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: http://www.fsmpio.fm/former_presidents_vice.html

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

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