NEW RECOUNT GIVES MARSHALLS INCUMBENTS EDGE

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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Jan. 7) — A previously announced four-vote victory by a key opposition candidate was snuffed out in a recount that ended early Saturday morning, giving the incumbent cabinet minister a six-vote win, and increasing the likelihood that the governing United Democratic Party will return for a third term.

"The whole election is tainted," said opposition spokesman and Sen.-elect Tony deBrum on Saturday.

He said the government should be "ashamed" of the way it handled the recount because it counted dozens of additional votes that had been rejected in the original tabulation in November.

The change gives the ruling UDP a one-vote lead over the opposition 15-14 going into Monday’s parliament opening. But both are still short of the 17-vote majority needed to form a government, with four independents holding the power to determine the outcome at Monday’s parliament opening when the new president will be elected.

Tom Kijiner, a six-term MP who was ousted by governing party member Donald Capelle in the 2003 election, appeared to have recaptured his seat by four votes, 319-315, after the Electoral Administration announced the unofficial results shortly before Christmas.

But Capelle’s recount petition was granted by Electoral officials, and on Thursday night, after the High Court rejected Kijiner’s last ditch legal appeal to halt the recount, it began. It took about 30 hours to conclude and Capelle, the justice minister, emerged the winner, 333-327.

A second recount carried out simultaneously for another seat with a one-vote margin of victory also favored the ruling party incumbent. Cabinet minister Michael Konelios had defeated challenger Patrick Langmoir 381-380 in the original tally, but after the recount, Konelios won handily, 405-378.

"What has happened was more than just a recount," said Majuro resident and business consultant Ben Graham. "It was really a whole new count, with new ballots being thrown into the mix. This basically violates the principle of a recount. Many people, including people who are indifferent about the candidates in these races, are of the opinion that what has just happened is highly suspect and questionable."

Even poll watchers for the winning government party candidates questioned the Electoral decision to tabulate "challenged" ballots — votes that had been set aside and not counted after the November 19 election because the voters names were not on the master lists or they did not have photo identification with them when they voted.

"Why count the challenged votes?" asked Konelios’ chief poll watcher Hemely Benjamin, a former chief electoral officer for the Marshall Islands.

"They should have counted those votes in the original tabulation or not at all." He said it opened the door for other losing candidates in close races — there are several races decided by fewer than 30 votes — to demand that "challenged" votes be counted in their races, too.

Electoral Chief Carl Alik told poll watchers Thursday night that because these were recounts, they were starting with a "clean slate," and the original counts would be disregarded.

"If this recount doesn’t match the original count it doesn’t matter," he said. "If there is a difference between your numbers and the total in the box we won’t stop — this (recount total) will be treated as the official number."

But deBrum said a recount is supposed to check and verify the original tally, not add new ballots to the count. "It’s a debacle," deBrum said. "The ballot boxes have all laid eggs (additional votes). There are an awful lot of votes coming out of nowhere." "I believe we (the opposition Aleon Kein Ad party) still have enough votes to form a government Monday," deBrum said. "The new parliament must deal with the problems of this election as a priority."

United Democratic Party spokesman Senator-elect Alik Alik expressed confidence Friday that "we have the votes to form the government."

"The only solution is to hold a new election," said Aelon Kein Ad (Our Islands) party chairman Senator-elect Christopher Loeak on Friday as the recount was in progress.

"If challenged and questioned ballots that were not originally counted were now included in this recount (for Likiep and Maloelap atolls), then should they have also been counted in the other 22 races?" Graham asked.

"The integrity of the entire electoral process has gone from bad to worse.

Basically the mess has just gotten messier."

When the parliament meets Monday to elect the new president, it will be the first time since the beginning of constitutional government in 1979 that the Marshall Islands will have a coalition government.

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