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Marshall Islands election puts opposition in driver’s seat

Friday 15 December 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Marshall Islands, Regional

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Marshall Islands election puts opposition in driver’s seat
Police officers transport boxes containing postal absentee ballots from the main post office in Majuro to the election tabulation headquarters on December 4. Barely 40 per cent of the absentee ballots mailed to offshore voters were returned in time to be tabulated. Photo: Hilary Hosia/23121401

The Marshall Islands national election results show the current parliamentary opposition to be in the driver’s seat to form a new government when the body meets for the first time in early January.

Although there are no official political parties in the Marshall Islands, the group that supported former President Hilda Heine for her 2016-2020 term in office has clearly bolstered its numbers based on the "final unofficial" results of the 20 November national election released this week by the Marshall Islands Electoral Administration.

The Marshall Islands election system requires issuance of "final unofficial" results that starts a 14-day clock ticking allowing petitions for recounts or other complaints to be lodged after which, on 26 December, the results will be declared "final official".

The final unofficial election results issued by the Electoral Administration confirm that 13 of the 33 Nitijela seats will change hands, two more than in the 2019 election that saw 11 new faces in parliament.

The reason for the delay in announcing the results of the 20 November election is that the anachronistic election law allows postal absentee ballots to arrive up to 14 days after election day, meaning they could not be tabulated until 4 December.

While the Post Office confirmed that 3,752 absentee ballots were mailed out to voters living outside the Marshall Islands, the vast majority of postal absentee votes either didn't arrive in time or were rejected for technical reasons, muting their impact.

These votes from Marshallese voters living offshore appeared to give one candidate seeking election to represent Likiep Atoll a one-vote margin of victory. But a recount on Wednesday turned the number around, giving Tommy Kijiner a 121-120 edge over Wallace Peter. A further recount was scheduled to proceed Friday.

The most high-profile incumbents losing their seats are Speaker Kenneth Kedi, Vice Speaker Peterson Jibas, Natural Resources Minister John Silk, Finance Minister Casten Nemra, and former Finance Minister Alfred Alfred, Jr.

The results mark the first time in the 44-year history of this north Pacific nation that Nitijela will have four women in the chamber.

In the most recent Nitijela, there were two and the most ever is three. New member Marie Milne from Ebon Atoll and Daisy Alik-Momotaro, who will return for a second term at Jaluit Atoll after a four-year hiatus, will join former President Heine (Aur) and second-term incumbent Kitlang Kabua (Kwajalein).

If the Likiep recount result is certified as final, there will be three couples in Nitijela the coming term: Daisy and Dennis Momotaro, Hilda Heine and Tommy Kijiner, and Marie and Sonny Milne.

The current government has taken a significant hit to its numbers with the loss of several current and former cabinet ministers in the current government of President David Kabua.

The shakeup in numbers puts a majority within reach of the current opposition. Even though the Kabua administration's numbers are significantly diminished, behind the scenes Iroojlaplap Mike Kabua - who chose not to run for re-election last month - remains the grandmaster of organising groupings to get 17, the magic number needed to form a government when Nitijela convenes to elect a new president 2 January.

The political lobbying is already in full swing in Majuro, with the winners ensconced in meetings at local restaurants discussing possible scenarios for generating the numbers to form a government come January.

The new Nitijela will convene on Tuesday 2 January to elect a President, Speaker and Vice Speaker, outgoing Nitijela Speaker Kenneth Kedi said earlier this week.

The Constitutional requirement is for the Nitijela to meet on the first Monday in January. Since Monday is New Year's Day and a public holiday, the body will convene the next day, Kedi said.

Kedi remains Speaker until the President, Speaker and Vice Speaker are elected and in place.

- RNZ