By Giff Johnson
Majuro — Dr. Hilda Heine is back for a second term as president of the Marshall Islands. But her election Jan. 2 by a one-vote majority in the 33-seat parliament shows the challenge the new president faces as she attempts to govern with a disparate group of elected leaders.
Heine led the Marshall Islands for one four-year term, from 2016-2020. She was the subject of one unsuccessful vote of no confidence during her term, and from the start of her term in office, governed with a much larger majority than she holds today — her second four-year term in office, with a four-year gap.
Heine unveiled her new Cabinet lineup Jan. 8. It features a mix of Nitijela (parliament) members and demonstrates how the president and her core supporters, in order to form a government, reached out to newly elected members as well as those from the islands who would normally be considered aligned with the traditional leadership that supported outgoing President David Kabua.
In 2016 Heine became the Pacific region’s first head of state. Today, she joins Samoa Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa as the only two women at the helm of island nations. In addition to Heine, the parliament has a new speaker and vice speaker: Brenson Wase and Isaac Zackhras, respectively.
There are big picture items waiting for the new administration to tackle, chief of which is the initial implementation of the third funding agreement under the Compact of Free Association with the United States, which the U.S. Congress is expected to approve this year. This is not nearly as straightforward compared to the first and second compact funding agreements in large part due to the rush to get the agreement finished in late 2023 leaving details to be worked out in the implementation phase.
But there are “fires” that Heine must quickly attend to. The first order of business for Heine’s new government is expected to be declaring not one, but two states of emergency: One for Kili Island, where “people are starving,” according to one Cabinet minister; the other to put focus on Majuro’s power crisis.
These moves were in the discussion stage prior to the swearing in of the new Cabinet on Jan. 9, with plans to formalize the state of emergencies for Kili Island and Majuro power supply at the first Cabinet meeting of the new government at the end of the week.
As a result of the previous local government administration bankrupting the $70 million Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund that had provided for the displaced Bikinians for nearly 40 years, there is no operations funding for the Kili-Bikini-Ejit local government. This means no funding for Kili Island, home of hundreds of displaced Bikinians, who rely on deliveries of food and fuel for the power plant for their daily needs. These regular deliveries, however, dried up with no funds available to the KBE local government.
Bikini voters elected a new mayor and member of parliament, in large part due to the loss of the trust fund, which has left hundreds of Bikinians without income since January 2023.
The Cabinet was preparing to declare a state of emergency to free up funds that can be used to immediately dispatch food for the population and fuel so the power plant can resume operations, new Finance Minister David Paul said in an interview.
Heine was scheduled to lead a delegation of Cabinet members and other leaders — including Paul and the new Minister of Culture and Internal Affairs, Jess Gasper, Jr., who represents the KBE community in Nitijela— to Kili to meet with the community and see the situation for herself. “We need to stabilize the community,” said Minister Paul of the situation at Kili Island.
For the past several decades, the KBE local government had operated on an annual budget, derived from its Resettlement Trust Fund, that ranged from $5 million to as high as $12 million. One person familiar with the current dire financial condition of the KBE local government said: “They don’t even have money to fix an air conditioner.” When a local newspaper reporter responded that this was similar to the situation on Nauru 20 years ago when Nauru’s large trust fund was bankrupted, leading to a headline in the Marshall Islands Journal: “From riches to rags,” the person familiar with the situation responded: “We don’t even have rags.”
A second national government state of emergency declaration is also anticipated to focus on Majuro’s ongoing power crisis, which saw extended and repeated power outages last week and weekend. The utility company in Majuro is operating on engines that are 25 to over 40 years old, resulting in repeated power outages and generator breakdowns.
“There will be no honeymoon period for the new government,” the finance minister said. “We will hit the ground running with two state of emergency declarations.”