MARSHALLS POLITICAL FIGURE BACK AFTER 8-YEAR ABSENCE

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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Feb. 22) - A key opposition figure in the Marshall Islands who has been out of parliament for nearly eight years is on his way to a landslide victory in a by-election to fill a seat opened by the recent death of a sitting senator.

The election of former Senator Tony deBrum, the opposition party’s primary behind-the-scenes strategist, is expected to invigorate the opposition for the coming November national election.

DeBrum is virtually assured of returning to parliament following voters giving him a 67 percent margin of victory -- 461 out of 686 votes -- in the unofficial results from the Kwajalein Atoll vote Tuesday. Still to be counted are several hundred absentee votes, but with his nearest rival, former senator Ataji Balos, gaining just 100 votes, local election observers say deBrum is a virtual shoe in.

DeBrum was a four-term MP from Majuro, and the minister of finance from 1998 to 1999, before he lost in 1999 to United Democratic Party candidates led by current President Kessai Note, who is now ending his second four-year term in office. DeBrum is credited with engineering the diplomatic switch from China to Taiwan in 1998 that has led to Taiwan becoming the second largest aid donor to the Marshall Islands, including a major contributor to the government’s new trust fund.

Note’s party successfully defeated deBrum in his reelection bid in 2003 national election, but with deBrum gaining the backing of traditional paramount chiefs who wield considerable power at Kwajalein, deBrum appears to have easily won the seat at Kwajalein that was vacated in December when Senator Justin deBrum died.

Note’s party was hit with another slap in the face, when earlier this week Speaker Litokwa Tomeing, a government party member, voted with the opposition to delay the parliament session to allow winners of the February 20 by-election, which also includes a race for Enewetak Atoll, to be seated before the parliament recesses until August.

Opposition senators put forward a motion to delay the session to allow the two new members -- from islands that have been opposition strongholds for the past seven years -- to be sworn in and seated during the current session. The parliament was scheduled to recess Friday this week until the August session.

But eight members, mostly government party senators, were absent when the motion was made earlier this week and the vote tied at 12 to 12.

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