THE election of the Marshall Islands’ — and the independent Pacific’s first — head of state in late January followed a rollercoaster series of leadership twists and turns in this north Pacific nation’s parliament. It saw the nomination by a paramount chief of a commoner, Casten Nemra, and his subsequent election on January 4 as the youngest president in Marshall Islands history.
But his slim majority collapsed just days into his presidency, a motion of no confidence was moved, and endorsed by parliament January 26. The next day, Dr. Hilda Heine was elected president of the nation without opposition, becoming the first woman to head this nation in its 37 years of constitutional government. Heine is not new to breaking glass ceilings for women. Earlier in her career, she was president of the College of the Marshall Islands and permanent secretary of education.
In the 1990s, she moved to Hawaii to complete her Ph.D. in education, becoming the first — and still only — Marshall Islander to achieve this postgraduate degree. She worked for many years with the Honolulu-based regional organization PREL (Pacific Resources for Education and Learning) that supports regional educational exchanges and reform projects in U.S.-affiliated islands. She returned to the Marshall Islands to stand for election to Nitijela (parliament) for Jaluit Atoll in 2007, but lost. In 2011, she switched to run from Aur Atoll, easily winning a seat in parliament.