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Traditional chief wins by largest margins in years

By Giff Johnson SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 4, 2012) – The Marshall Islands elected Christopher Loeak as the nation’s sixth president at the opening of parliament yesterday.

The change of leadership was accomplished without rancor with outgoing President Jurelang Zedkaia promising his support of Loeak’s new government.

The new president is a traditional chief, continuing the trend of traditional leaders holding the top political office in the Marshall Islands. Of the six presidents who have held office since 1979, five have been chiefs.

Loeak was elected 21-11, the widest margin since MP Kessai Note was first elected president in 2000 by a unanimous vote of the parliament.

Loeak has been a cabinet member in previous governments and has served in the parliament for 25 years. His election showed the strength the opposition was able to put together by joining forces with Note’s splinter group.

[PIR editor’s note: 33 members of the Marshall Islands parliament will be representing their constituencies in the government this year. President Loeak was first elected to governance in 1985 and has served as Minister of Justice, Minister of Social Services, Minister of Education, and Minister in Assistance to the President.]

Donald Capelle easily won election as speaker against the government party nominee Brenson Wase, as did Tomaki Juda who defeated the government party’s nominee for Vice Speaker John Silk. Both won 20-13.

The parliament chamber overflowed with about 500 people watching the two-hour proceeding.

"I respect the outcome," Zedkaia said after Loeak. Zedkaia expressed happiness at Loeak, a fellow chief, being the opposing candidate and praised his election. "We will work and stand with you," Zedkaia said. "If you see a need where we can help, we are prepared to step up."

Zedkaia compared the government and opposition groups to oil and water that normally don’t go together. "But in an engine, oil makes it work, while water cools it off," he said of his offer to work with the new government.

Loeak said he appreciated Zedkaia’s remarks, adding that the new government will need everyone’s help.

Loeak praised the smoothly handled election as an indicator of the maturity of the political process and said he is prepared to listen to all advice offered.

Council of Iroij Chairman Kotak Loeak, the new president’s brother, called on all members of the parliament to work together for the betterment of the country, saying togetherness "makes it easier to achieve goals for the country."

The parliament recessed after the election Tuesday to allow the new president time to appoint his cabinet. The members are awaiting the call of the speaker, with the inauguration of the new government and swearing in of the president and cabinet anticipated for early next week.

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