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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (November 10, 1999 – Marshall Islands Journal)---A momentous occasion is soon to be upon us – five days from now, to be exact.

Momentous, because the November 15 national election is qualitatively different from the five previous elections since the establishment of Constitutional government in 1979.

For one, it will elect the senators who will provide the leadership for the Marshall Islands as the country heads into critical Compact renegotiations with the United States.

For another, the campaign has revved itself up a few notches over previous years, with a newly energized opposition group, along with a crew of assorted hopefuls, bashing away at incumbents like never before.

The force of this year’s campaigning has its roots in a watershed event that occurred 18 months ago, in March 1998. In that month, citizens of the Marshall Islands did something they had never done before; they led a campaign which resulted in the Nitijela shutting off gambling in the country.

The impact of that vote in the Nitijela is still reverberating today – the court challenges. High Court decisions, appeals, Supreme Court rulings, the changes in the Cabinet, the vote of no confidence, the formation of the United Democratic Party composed heavily of former Cabinet ministers, etc.

Its impact on the political landscape may be most significant in terms of the change of attitude in the populace that it embodies. It demonstrated that ordinary people had the power to effect change in government policy – a previously unheard of concept.

That, coupled with the growing numbers of voters in the 18-25 age group who are less beholden to traditional values and pressures makes for the greatest of uncertainty about the outcome of this vote as we approach the first election in the post-Amata Kabua era.

Historically, Marshallese have tended to vote along family lines. In places like Majuro and Ebeye, whose land one is living on has also been an important factor. But, given that each of two urban centers has more than one senator (five and three, respectively), even that traditional control may affect only one of the votes. Will people continue voting along family lines, or will this election see a shift to a more issue-oriented vote?

Eight years ago, the Ralik Ratak Democratic Party launched a high-profile campaign based heavily on an anti-corruption and issue-oriented platform. In essence, the RRDP broke new ground by being the first seriously organized opposition group to put issues on the agenda.

In 1991, the RRDP rocked the boat but gained only a handful of seats in the election. Its contribution to the political evolution in the RMI was pushing the envelope of what was considered acceptable political discourse.

The UDP is widening the scope of the debate, but in essence its message is "voting for us is a vote for a new start, free of corruption and political manipulation."

But the majority party isn’t taking this lying down. Government ministers point to large scale development projects – such as Majuro’s new roads, the soon-to-begin work at the airport, new local government headquarters, etc. – as evidence of their accomplishments, saying a vote for them is a vote for stability and continuation of economic advancement.

Will this national election be the first in history to lead to sweeping changes, ushering in a new government? Will incumbents’ heads roll under the onslaught of voter disenchantment, or will the government party be resoundingly endorsed for another four years?

I am making no predictions for November 15. But I will say this. Both the majority party and the UDP are led by Senators who’ve been in Nitijela for many years.

In the short-term, if the current majority loses, it will certainly shake-up the status quo. But in the long term, if Marshallese are concerned about how the government is (or isn’t) handling its affairs, the key element isn’t going to be whether they vote for returning the majority party or for a change in the Nitijela. The key is going to be to what extent is the Marshallese public – community, youth and church groups, business leaders, individuals, etc. – willing to play its part in this fledgling democracy?

In the first 20 years of constitutional government, Marshallese citizens have generally been content to leave the affairs of government in the hands of the leaders. In the past two years, that complacent attitude has begun to change. The extent to which this trend continues will determine much about the future progress and economic development of the Marshall Islands.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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