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.