Low-key election campaign in Marshalls belies vote importance

Aerial view of Marshall Islands (Photo: PINA)

Marshall Islanders go to the polls Monday 20 November following what may have been the quietest election campaign in the 44-years of constitutional government.

But the muted campaign — there are no political parties in the Marshall Islands — might mislead observers to think this every-four-year election is of little consequence. On the contrary, the Marshall Islands is moving into the challenging waters of implementation of the newly signed funding and trust fund agreements under the Compact of Free Association.

The new pact is challenging because many of the details of how money can be used and spent over the next 20 years has not yet been spelled out, leaving a vacuum that is likely to result in internal debate and tension in the parliament over use of U.S. funds. This is due in large part to the United States government policy that refuses to acknowledge the U.S. government’s ongoing responsibility for the nuclear legacy that it caused. This policy led the U.S. to refuse to mention the word “nuclear” in the new funding agreement, despite demands from the Marshall Islands fully address the nuclear test legacy.

Many of the decisions about spending of a new US$700 million fund will be left up to the new government that convenes in January.

Voters go to the polls Monday to elect the 33-member parliament and local government mayors and council members. In the last two national elections, there was considerable turnover of members. A review comparing the results of the 2015 election to 2011 shows over 40 percent of the Nitijela (parliament) changed in the 2015 national election. In the most recent election, in 2019, one-third of all seats — 11 — changed hands.

An unusual development in this year’s election is that there are five open seats. Which means a minimum of five new Nitijela members will be sworn in this coming January. And, if past practice holds, they will be joined by half a dozen more new faces.

The unprecedented number of open seats resulted from three members — all Cabinet ministers — not running due to health reasons. In addition, the two ranking iroojlaplap (paramount chiefs) for the Ralik Chain, Mike Kabua (Kwajalein) and Chris Loeak (Ailinglaplap), both will see their long careers in Nitijela come to an end in early January as they decided not to contest the November 20 election. Loeak has held his seat since the mid-1980s, while Kabua has served since the mid-2000s.

A six-member Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat observer team arrived in Majuro earlier this week and was engaged in observing the pre-voting Organsational work at the Electoral Administration headquarters.

Voting will be conducted in over a dozen polling stations around Majuro Atoll, the capital, and on 23 other remote outer atolls that have from one to as many as eight or 10 voting wards on different islands.

While domestic preliminary results from the tedious hand-tabulation of ballots following Monday’s vote will likely be available by Thursday or Friday, there cannot be a final count for over two weeks due to the way absentee voters cast their ballots.

A postal absentee system allows voters to mail in ballots and, provided they are properly postmarked prior to the election date, they can arrive up to 14 days after the 20 November election. This means that these postal ballots will not be counted until 05 December.

A total of 3,752 postal absentee ballots were mailed to Marshallese voters living overseas, according to the Marshall Islands Postmaster Dexter Jikit. However, as 1,672 of these were only mailed out earlier this week and quite possibly will not reach the voters living around the U.S. mainland in time for them to postmark them prior to 20 November, it is likely to mute the impact on this election of the large population of Marshallese living overseas. Still, the over 2,000 postal ballots will likely impact some races in the country that are frequently decided by fewer than 20 votes.

The Marshall Islands will have to wait until early December for a final result to materialise following tabulation of the offshore votes after 04 December.