President of Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, last week survived his second motion of no confidence in six months. In this case, the opposition brought forward the motion on the grounds that the government had ignored proper process in its attempt to appoint Jamil el-Sayed, a Lebanese national, as its representative to UNESCO. Specifics aside, the incident raises numerous interesting questions about the nature of presidential politics in Marshall Islands, and the Pacific region more generally.
The Marshallese constitution is commonly known as a ‘hybrid’ of Westminster and Presidential systems. In reality, however, it is more Westminster or Parliamentary than it is Presidential with the President – who is also the head of state – elected by parliament and answerable to it for all government decisions. Should a motion of no confidence – passed by a simple majority on the floor of parliament – be successful then the President is deemed to have tendered their resignation.[i] Historically, this has meant that both the Speaker and the judiciary have had a significant influence on when these motions are brought forward and the procedures by which they are resolved.
What regular readers of this blog will note is that in definitional terms the Marshallese constitution does not quite fit the established typologies. In a broad sense we might call it a Semi-Presidential system but with the added feature that the functions usually ascribed to either the President or the Prime Minister are effectively undertaken by the same person. In practice, however, the Marshallese system works in much the same way as a Westminster system does, thus begging the question of whether, aside from the name of the office, it is really Presidential at all.
Definitions aside, one of the interesting features of this type of arrangement is that while, in theory, the standard Westminster formula allows political parties to guarantee the executive numbers on the floor of the house, in practice the opposite often occurs. The main reason is that while political parties exist in the Marshall Islands, they have tended to function as loose blocs rather than institutionalised machines. When combined with the relatively small size of the Marshallese Nitijela [parliament] – it has 33 members – a decision by a few parliamentarians to switch sides can bring down the government whose position is perpetually precarious.
The Marshallese experience is not unique as this feature of political life is common to both standard Westminster and hybrid constitutional systems across the Pacific. Indeed, Marshall Islands is relatively stable when compared with neighbouring Nauru, which has similar constitutional arrangements, where more than a dozen successful motions of no confidence have resulted in changes of President since independence in 1968.
To solve this instability, several countries have attempted to introduce legislation that stops MPs crossing the floor. However, it remains to be seen whether this will increase stability, as, in some cases, these mechanisms have been deemed unconstitutional. What does seem certain, however, is that the regularity of these no-confidence events will continue to sharpen calls across the region for constitutional reform that either alters Westminster to suit the Pacific context or ushers in full Presidential regimes.
[i] Stege, K. 2009. “Marshall Islands.” In Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, ed. S Levine, pp. 112-120. Wellington: Victoria University Press.