Find a Security Clearance Job!


Marshall Islands - Politics

There have been a number of local and national elections since the Republic of the Marshall Islands was founded, and, in general, democracy has functioned well. Citizens of the Marshall Islands live with a relatively new democratic political system combined with a hierarchical traditional culture. It was a traditionally matrilineal society, explained Ms. Helkena, in which women were traditionally decision-makers and landowners; however, it was believed that the place of a woman was in the home while men should occupy the public space and be the breadwinner, thus positions of leadership and decision-making were regarded as male roles.

Since the start of constitutional self-government in 1979, the Marshall Islands has witnessed elections occurring, without interruption, every four years. There have been no coups, no premature dissolutions of parliament and only one successful vote of no confidence. The constitution has, in most respects, served the country reasonably well. There exists considerable popular engagement in political life. Parliamentary sittings are broadcast live on national radio, provoking considerable public interest. Popular extra-parliamentary campaigns have proved able to significantly influence the political agenda, national economic and social summits (NESS) have drawn together a wide range of stakeholder participants and Marshallese citizens have shown a notable independence in several constitutional referenda since 1979.

Election 1999

The first two presidents were chiefs. Executive power is centralized in the President and his Cabinet. This group dominates the legislature as well. There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties. Political activity by foreigners is prohibited.

On September 7, 1998, the President and his Cabinet walked out of the legislative session when the Speaker of the Nitijela ruled that there would be a secret ballot on a motion of no confidence. On September 29, 1998, the High Court ruled the walkout illegal. The Cabinet appealed the High Court decision to the Supreme Court, and the President and Cabinet continued to use walkouts to avoid critical votes during the legislative session, at times precipitating a virtual shutdown of the legislature. On September 8, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court ruling.

The Nitijela election was held on 15 November 1999, and, in a record turnout, voters signaled dissatisfaction with the incumbent government by defeating five of the eight incumbent ministers seeking reelection. The United Democratic Party, running on a reform platform, won the 1999 parliamentary election, taking control of the presidency and cabinet.

In January 2000, the President was selected by the Nitijela from among its 33 members. Kessai Note made history in early 2000 by becoming the first commoner to be elected president of the Marshall Islands, where traditional power remains strong and, until recently, there had been little change in a political environment once dominated by traditional leaders. The President then selected ten cabinet ministers from among the Nitijela members.

Election 2003

Elections for the 33-member Nitijela were held on November 17 following a 2-month campaign; President Kessai Note's United Democratic Party won a majority of the seats. The elections were open, and there were no serious allegations of electoral fraud. However, the complex electoral system, which grants voters the option of voting where they have land rights instead of where they reside, requires almost every polling place to provide for voters from many other districts. A significant number of absentee ballots also were cast in the November elections. As a result, several close elections generated formal complaints against election officials for alleged mishandling of ballots and other problems, including some allegations of favoritism.

There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties, although many candidates preferred to run independently or loosely aligned with informal coalitions. Political activity by foreigners is prohibited.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government and politics; however, traditional attitudes of male dominance, women's cultural responsibilities, traditionally passive roles, and the generally early age of pregnancies made it difficult for women to obtain political qualifications or experience. Three women ran for the Nitijela in November, and one was elected. Five women were members of the eight-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges. Society is matrilineal, and those men and women who exercised traditional leadership and land ownership powers derived their rights either from their own positions in the family or from relationships based on their mother's and sister's lineage. However, the traditional authority exercised by women has declined with growing urbanization and movement of the population away from traditional lands.

Election 2007

Elections for the Nitijela were held in November 2007. There were many problems on election day in the major population center of Majuro, resulting in many voters waiting more than five hours to cast their ballots. In addition, some ballot boxes were recounted on the initiative of the chief electoral officer, which caused accusations of impropriety and assertions that the boxes should have been reopened only with a court order. Nevertheless, a team of independent election observers from the Pacific Islands Forum stated in their initial report that the election, while poorly managed, was conducted in a democratic manner, enabling voters to exercise their will freely.

Individuals and parties can freely declare their candidacy and stand for election. There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties, although many candidates prefer to run independently or loosely aligned with informal coalitions.

In the elections held in November 2007, the then opposition Aelon Kein Ad ("Our Island" - AKA) party took 18 seats, three more than the United Democratic Party (UDP) of the then President Kessai Note. In 2000, President Note had become the first commoner to be elected President. All previous presidents had been traditional chiefs. In January 2008, parliament elected Mr. Litokwa Tomeing - a traditional chief who had defected from the UDP to the AKA shortly before the 2007 elections - as the country's new President. Jurelang Zedkaia (AKA) was elected Speaker.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government and politics; however, traditional attitudes of male dominance, women's cultural responsibilities, traditionally passive roles, and the generally early age of pregnancies made it difficult for women to obtain political qualifications or experience. There was one woman in the 33-member Nitijela and four women in the 12-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges, but the chief public defender was a woman.

In February 2009, President Tomeing dismissed the Foreign Minister. Parliamentarians close to the Foreign Minister failed twice in their attempt to have parliament pass a vote of no-confidence against the President. In November, however, President Tomeing was ousted by a vote of no-confidence, the first such case since independence from the United States in 1979. Speaker Zedkaia (AKA) was elected President, ahead of former President Note. Alvin T. Jacklick became the new Speaker.

Election 2011

Prior to the dissolution of Parliament in 2011, supporters of President Zedkaia controlled 17 seats. They formed a new party, Kien Eo Am ("Your Government" - KEA). The KEA, which included the President, Speaker Jacklick as well as former President Tomeing, was challenged by Mr. Michael Kabua's AKA.

Although traditional chiefs had usually united at the parliamentary elections in preparation for the indirect presidential elections, in 2011, President Zedkaia (KEA) was also challenged by other traditional leaders. The latter represent voters in Kwajalein Atoll, which hosts the US Army's Reagan Test Site. As part of the Compact of Free Association (a treaty with the US), Marshall Islanders have unrestricted access to live, work and study in the United States. About 13,000 currently live in the US. Shortly before the 2011 elections, the US Government announced its intention to regulate Marshall Islanders' migration privileges. Outgoing parliamentarian and Foreign Minister John Silk (KEA) pledged to defend the islanders' rights and privileges under the Compact.

In lieu of traditional face-to-face campaigning, many candidates used Facebook and Skype in 2011 in an attempt to reach out to voters living in the United States. The Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United Nations, Phillip Muller (AKA), who was vying for one of the five seats in Majuro, said that fewer candidates went to the US 2011 because of the increase in Internet campaigning and the cost of travel. Turnout was reportedly low among the 36,000 registered voters.

The official results published on 9 December did not give a clear majority to either side. Independent candidates subsequently joined the AKA, which controlled around 20 seats. President Zedkaia (KEA), Speaker Jacklick (KEA), former President Tomeing (KEA), AKA leader Kabua and Ambassador Muller (AKA) were all re-elected. Only one woman was elected.

Election 2015

On 19 November 2015 Marshall Islands voters delivered an unmistakable message through Monday's national election: they wanted change. Five opposition-aligned candidates dominated the vote for the five-seat parliament race for Majuro, the nation's capital. The election results in the Marshall Islands caused a big upset for the government of president Christopher Loeak, with half his cabinet voted out of office. Among five cabinet ministers who have lost their seats is the prominent foreign minister, Tony de Brum, who is currently in Paris for international climate change negotiations. The speaker, vice-speaker, and other government-aligned incumbents have also lost their seats. The country also elected three women to parliament, the highest number since the Marshall Islands gained independence. The big story of election 2015 was the "youth vote" for newcomers Sherwood Tibon in Majuro and David Paul in Kwajalein, who have elbowed their way into historically difficult electorates for first-time candidates to gain a foothold.

The 2015 elections saw half of the members of the government and many senior figures of the ruling Aelon Kein Ad party ("Our Island" - AKA) lose their parliamentary seats. Although candidates are officially non-partisan and their party affiliation may change after the elections, many of them belong either to the AKA or Kien Eo Am ("Your Government" - KEA). The KEA was established in 2011 by former AKA members, supporting the then President Jurelang Zedkai who passed away in October 2015. Following the 2015 elections, the KEA, led by Alvin Jacklick, reportedly controlled 23 seats in the 33-member Parliament.

The high turnover in 2015 resulted in the election of younger candidates. Mr. Sherwood Tibon (KEA) scored the highest number of votes in the capital Majuro, campaigning as the "voice of youth". A record three women were elected in 2015, up from one in previous legislatures.

On 4 January 2016, the newly-elected parliament held its first session and elected Mr. Kenneth Kedi (Solid 8) as its new Speaker. A first-time member, Mr. Casten Nemra (AKA), was elected as the country's President by a one-vote margin against the former Speaker Alvin Jacklick (Solid 8). On 25 January, however, parliament adopted a vote of no-confidence against the new President, giving him the shortest term in office in the country's history. On 27 January, Ms. Hilda C. Heine (Solid 8) was elected as the new President, thereby becoming the first woman to assume the post.

Election 2019

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a constitutional republic led by President Hilda C. Heine. Legislative power resides in the Nitijela, which consists of 33 senators elected by 24 electoral districts by universal suffrage of all citizens above 18 years of age. The Nitijela, the countrys parliament, elected Heine in early 2016, following free and fair multiparty elections in late 2015. The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose local governments and their representatives in the Nitijela in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The constitution also recognizes the hereditary Council of Iroijs right to decide on issues of custom and tradition, including land tenure. The council consists of tribal chiefs.

Over the years various reviews highlighted poor accounting standards, misuse of funds and persistent non-reporting by government agencies, state-owned enterprises, local governments and ministries. There is an urgent need to strengthen the oversight and enforcement role of parliament, and in particular to revitalise the links between the Nitijelas public accounts committee, the Auditor General, Attorney General and Finance Ministry.

Parliamentary sessions have not proved able to generate essential legislation in key areas, partly due to poor planning and organisation. Nitijela srvices aimed at enhancing parliamentary debate are weak and parliamentary business is not organised around a clear annual programme. Cabinet dominates the legislature, while parliament serves as a talking shop rather than a key nationbuilding institution. The Nitijelas potentially strong committee system is not functioning to potential in scrutinizing the Executive. The Public Service Commission has not, historically, plays its intended neutral role in the regulation of state employment, but has regularly been subject to ministerial control.

The Marshall Islands Auditor General raised concerns in March 2018 to parliament about government workers violating the law. Junior Patrick produced a report to parliament documenting ongoing violations of law every year that are ignored. It showed that very few criminal charges get filed in court for procurement and other financial accountability violations. Although administrative penalties could apply to enforce against improper financial activities, those are rarely implemented. Mr Patrick said despite ongoing calls to act, nothing was being done about it.

Join the mailing list