By Giff Johnson
Majuro (Marianas Variety) -- The Marshall Islands domestic election result shows that as many as one-third of all members of parliament are likely to change when the body is sworn in during early January.
But the Marshall Islands domestic vote result comes with a big asterisk: Until the offshore postal ballots are counted in early December, the vote result is not final.
An archaic law from the early 1980s allows postal ballots to arrive up to 14 days after the Nov. 20 election day, provided they are properly postmarked prior to the election.
A total of 3,752 ballots were mailed to Marshallese voters, mostly in the U.S. mainland, by the Marshall Islands Electoral Administration.
But over 1,600 of these were mailed just days before Nov. 20 reducing the chance that they arrived in time for voters to send their votes back before the deadline. Still, the potential impact of over 2,000 postal absentee votes in electoral districts that are usually won by from as few as single digits to 30 or 40 votes cannot be discounted.
Based on the still unofficial domestic results provided Friday night by the Electoral Administration, both Speaker Kenneth Kedi and Vice Speaker Peterson Jibas have lost. Six new members of the Nitijela (parliament) were a given due to six incumbents stepping down for various reasons. But it appears that five others, the speaker and vice speaker, the two incumbents from Jaluit — which includes two-term incumbent and current Finance Minister and former Foreign Minister Casten Nemra, and three-term incumbent member Tony Aisaia of Namu Atoll have lost their seats — subject to what the postal ballots bring.
Former Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios is in a battle for the second seat at Arno Atoll, which he previously represented in parliament, against newcomer Stevenson Kotton, a vice president at the College of the Marshall Islands. Zackios is ahead by just 13 votes, so the postal ballots could be the key to determining this race.
One of the most significant elections was the Kili/Bikini/Ejit race that has hinged on incumbent Mayor Anderson Jibas and his brother, Vice Speaker Jibas, heading an administration that wiped out a more than $70 million U.S-provided trust fund that has sustained the Bikinians since the early 1980s with regular funding for food, power plant fuel, salaries, scholarships and other needs. Those payments halted in January when the trust fund was depleted, and in August the national government placed the KBE Local Government into receivership due to the problems caused by the demise of the trust fund.
Nitijela challenger Jess Gasper Jr., who lives in the U.S mainland but has campaigned over the past year for the Bikini seat, was up by only 17 against the vice speaker in the domestic vote, 268-251. The margin of victory by challenger Tommy Jibok over incumbent Mayor Anderson Jibas is more significant, 310-249.
Four-term incumbent Speaker Kenneth Kedi has been an outspoken advocate for nuclear justice for his fallout-exposed constituency and was heavily involved in the negotiations with the United States of the recently signed Compact of Free Association. But he was toppled on the domestic vote by a wide margin of 150-80 by Hilton Kendall, who had run unsuccessfully against Kedi in the 2019 election.
Former President Hilda Heine won the domestic vote easily on her home atoll.
Chief Electoral Officer Ben Kiluwe said Friday night that by law, 04 December is the last day that postal ballots can be received. After the mail is sorted from the two flights from the U.S. that day, the ballots will join the hundreds of others that have been filtering into the Electoral Administration for the past several weeks on every in-bound flight. Tabulation is expected to begin Dec. 5 and take several days due to the tedious nature of checking affidavits of offshore voters prior to putting their ballots into atoll ballot boxes for tabulation.