A tumultuous week in Marshallese politics ended last Wednesday with the election of the country (and the region’s) first ever female president, Hilda Heine. The machinations that catapulted Heine to the top job began on Tuesday with the ousting of recently elected President, Casten Nemra, who had served only two weeks of his term, the shortest presidency in the history of Marshall Islands, by a successful vote-of-no-confidence. As previously outlined on this blog, votes-of-no-confidence are a common method by which leaders are replaced in the Westminster-inspired legislatures of the Pacific. And, despite holding the title “President” the Marshallese head of state is nonetheless elected from the floor of parliament.
Nemra was a controversial choice by virtue of his being both the youngest ever Marshallese president and only the second elected to the position from a non-chiefly or commoner background. Heine’s election, however, represents a further break from this tradition. Family ties were the key to her victory. In early January Kwajalein Senator and Iroij (chief) Michael Kabua was said to have orchestrated Nemra’s one-vote victory as president. The key to this power play was the defection of the three Heine family members — all cabinet ministers during the past four years — to the opposition.
The Mariana’s Variety describes the machinations that resulted from this in the following terms:
“The Heines’ move to the opposition followed Nemra offering cabinet postings to only two of the three — Hilda and Wilbur, but not Thomas. The trio’s move followed a number of members of an independent group jumping to support Nemra and later receiving cabinet postings in the short-lived government. But when Nemra announced his cabinet at the January 11 swearing-in ceremony, only eight of the 10 members were named, an omission that suggested the difficulties that were to come in the days following. Another first for the government and Nitijela was last Friday’s resignation from the cabinet of Transportation and Communications Minister Mike Halferty, who held the post for just 11 days. In a one-sentence letter of resignation, he told Nemra he was resigning “for political reasons.” Nemra in turn thanked Halferty for his “integrity and decency in writing to me personally” about his resignation. With his cabinet increasingly in tatters, the no-confidence vote was just a matter of time.”
Heine is used to being the first; she is also the first Marshallese to gain a doctorate. Having spent much of her career in education, she was unsuccessful in her initial attempts to gain a seat in the Nitijela but eventually won election in 2011 representing Aur Atoll. She was subsequently made Minister of Education. On Wednesday she was the sole presidential candidate, eventually securing 24 of a possible 33 votes.
As the first woman to be elected head of government to an independent Pacific nation Heine’s rise to power represents an historic moment for the region. Most Pacific Island countries have only a handful of women MPs (some have none at all) giving it the unfortunate tag of the worst region in the world for women’s representation. In the recent Vanuatu election, for example, only eight women stood and none were successful. There have been high profile exceptions to this trend, including Vice President of Palau, Sandra Pierantozzi and Vice President of Kiribati, Teima Onorio. But, none have made it to the top job before Heine.
Ben Graham outlined last month how the Marshall Islands faces considerable development challenges. Addressing these systemic issues whilst maintaining the fluctuating support of the Nitijela will be a difficult balancing act. All of which means that Heine will have her work cut out for her.