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  • By Jonathan Perez

Where's the party?

Independent candidates are dominating the CNMI race

Saipan —The list of Independent candidates seeking elective positions up for grabs in the upcoming general elections has outnumbered those running under the ruling Republican Party. So far, 39 Independents have filed their candidacies with the Commonwealth Election Commission.

The number was anticipated to further go up before the Aug. 8 deadline for nominations and submission of candidacies. As of this writing, there were still some, including former officials, who were expected to toss their hats into the ring but had yet to formally declare their candidacies.

Leading the pack of Independents is former governor Juan N. Babauta who is trying to reclaim the top political post he held more than 10 years ago. He is running with Dr. Rita A. Sablan as his choice for lieutenant governor. Dr. Sablan, a Democrat, is a former commissioner of the CNMI State Public School System. They are running against the GOP ticket — the incumbent CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Arnold I. Palacios.

Babauta, who ran as a Republican and was elected governor in 2001, was in office from 2002 to 2006. He lost his reelection bid in the 2005 three-way race won by former House Speaker Benigno R. Fitial. In 2009, he sought the GOP nomination for governor but lost to Heinz S. Hofschneider in the primary. He also ran an unsuccessful bid for the CNMI Delegate post in 2010 but lost to Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan. In 2014 Babauta quit the party and became an Independent to run for governor. He had no luck either.

This time, Babauta received the endorsement of Kilili Sablan, who is seeking reelection and being challenged by GOP bet Rep. Angel A. Demapan.

CNMI's Independent candidates, from left, Paul Manglona, Heinz Hofschneider, Rita Sablan and Juan Babauta. Photo by Jonathan Perez

While the CNMI’s political structure is patterned after the American political system, local political parties lack an ideological basis. Typical of island politics, party affiliations are often dictated by family and social relationships.

The Republican Party and the Democratic Party previously dominated the political scene until Benigno Fitial formed the Covenant Party in 2001. It emerged as a force to be reckoned with following the election of nine candidates for the legislature in 2003 and Fitial’s subsequent victory in the gubernatorial race in 2005. The Covenant Party, however, has been dismantled following its failure to field a candidate for governor in 2014.

The sudden surge of Independents boldly challenging the ruling party is a “developing political phenomenon” seen “for the first time in the history of the CNMI,” Babauta said. “This is the first time that I’ve seen such great numbers of individuals—both male and female—who are interested in running for public office and they are all running under an independent candidacy. I mean, the number of independent candidates running for public office now exceeds the number of spots that is allowed.”

Gov. Ralph Torres

Babauta speculates the new political landscape is indicative of the public’s dissatisfaction with the CNMI leadership. “If everything in the CNMI is great, it defies the reason why all of a sudden this new phenomenon is developing and spreading like fire. I can only surmise and conclude that they are not happy with the status quo, and we’re going to change that,” said Babauta, who is being endorsed by his former political rival, Delegate Sablan.

Hofschneider, who twice ran against Babauta for governor, has teamed up with the former CNMI chief executive in hopes of securing one of the two Senate seats for Saipan.

The Democratic Party of the Northern Marianas is also backing the Babauta-Sablan team. Democrats initially planned to endorse Dr. Sablan as the party’s nominee for either governor or lieutenant governor but they could not find a suitable running mate for the former education commissioner.

Former lawmaker Tina Sablan said one political party controlling the government is not healthy for any democracy. “People are hungry for change. It’s exciting. I’m proud to be part of it. The sheer number of Independent candidates and their supporters represents a direct challenge to the status quo,” said Sablan who is hoping to secure one of two House seats in the CNMI Legislature for Precinct 2 that’s being held by House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan and Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation chairman John Paul P. Sablan.

Governor Torres, meanwhile, attributed the rising trend of new candidates to the increasing opportunities within a stronger economy. “It’s a promising sign as young people are now coming out to serve our community, and we should welcome that,” the governor said.

The growing number of candidates reflects a growing CNMI Republican Party, he said. “I am proud that we have a full slate of candidates for every precinct and island. More importantly we have a shared message of progress that all GOP members and support and rally behind,” Torres said. “Some may choose to run against our party but we maintain strong numbers, and support for our accomplishments and message. What really matters is the positive impact we have made to our economy and in turn the public. We have more jobs, higher incomes, and more opportunities for all and the CNMI Republican Party represents a continuation of this positive trend.”

As the political pot heats up, every issue gets dragged into every political discussion — even the question of why a Saipan-bound United flight got delayed for almost two days. The political race is expected to further increase temperature as the filing deadline nears and the Nov. 6 elections move closer. (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)


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