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.

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