The CNMI's 2022 election: A lot of political fireworks lie ahead



By Jose Dela Cruz

Saipan—The drumbeat of politics has already started rolling in the CNMI, signaling the start of campaigning for the CNMI general election this coming November. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have begun advance preparation for the much-anticipated political battles that will be fought in the coming months before the November general election.


The anxiously anticipated general election will decide who will lead the CNMI government for the next four years. As with literally all the previous CNMI general elections since 1977, party resources, precinct leaders, party officials and party stalwarts in all the three major islands, as well as campaign funding sources are now being identified, marshaled and organized by each of the two political parties.


This year promises to have one of the most hotly contested elections in CNMI history. It includes an extra set of gubernatorial candidates—the independent political faction that broke away from the NMI Republican Party last summer.


The breakaway took place when Gov. Ralph Torres decided last year to dump his lt. governor, Arnold Palacios, and pick Saipan Sen. Vinnie Sablan to be his next running mate.


Palacios and the popular mayor of Saipan, David Apatang, have since teamed up to run as an independent team for the next gubernatorial election.


Meanwhile, the NMI Democratic Party—after more than 10 years of party fracture, internal disorganization, heated in-fighting and failure to field any candidate for public office, whether for the executive branch or for the legislature, finally reorganized itself last year.


The party is once again proving itself to be a formidable political organization. It has, so far, selected the progressive and forward looking CNMI House Rep. Christina “Tina” Sablan, as the party’s standard bearer and nominee for CNMI chief executive. She is running with Rep. Leila Fleming Staffler from Tinian, an educator by profession.


If Sablan were to win at the CNMI general election this year, she would have the unique distinction of being the first female governor in the history of the Northern Mariana Islands. And that would be historic in and of itself.

So, quite a lot is at stake during the next several months before the election. Much planning, preparation and initial legwork are being carried out by the two political parties and the independent faction, in preparation for the many political battles and skirmishes that will be fought this year between the three gubernatorial teams. Whether there will be a second set of independent candidates for governor and lt. governor, as was the case in some of the previous general elections, remains a possibility.


The upcoming general election promises to give the voters of the CNMI much political fodder to weigh, analyze, digest and compare, as well as to gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each of the three gubernatorial candidates. The political campaigning will also give the voters of the CNMI an idea as to the candidates’ goals, plans and vision for the commonwealth, in the event that they are elected to office.


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The political campaigning, the party platform and the public debates in the coming months will also give the voters of the CNMI the opportunity to determine who they think or believe is the most qualified candidate to assume the mantle of leadership in the commonwealth for the next four years. This is very important because, for two decades now, the people of the CNMI have gone through what has been the longest stretch of economic recession for the islands, since CNMI self-government began in 1978.


The next eight months will hopefully provide the voters of the CNMI not just political fireworks as well as political entertainment, but also much soul-searching with respect to the future well-being of the CNMI and its people.


By election day in November, the voters will have decided who the best candidate for chief executive is.


For each of the three political camps, the party stalwarts and followers will most likely vote for their respective party candidates. Like religious followers, the party stalwarts unquestionably believe that their candidate is the best qualified to hold the office of CNMI chief executive.


No amount of debate, qualification requirement, lack of goal or vision on the part of their party’s candidate will persuade them to “waste” their vote on the opposition. They simply will not vote outside their political party column, as set forth in the voting ballot. And that’s to be expected because many of them rely on their party for their jobs with the government.


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For the next eight months, therefore, the two factions running against Torres will hurl against him and the NMI Republican Party the many allegations of corruption and wrongdoing allegedly committed by the incumbent governor.


As of the publication of this article, the House of Representatives has voted 15-4 to adopt the impeachment resolution, which was headed to the Senate for trial.


Whether the CNMI Senate will thereafter convict Torres and remove him from office before the general election appears doubtful because a majority of the Senate members are strongly on Torres’s side. Indeed, regardless of the factual validity of the impeachment allegations against Torres, Republican Party stalwarts supporting Torres will most likely still vote for him.


Based on the history of CNMI politics, however, die-hard Republican Party stalwarts will not sit idly by and do nothing to assist the governor. Indeed, to create a diversion, his supporters will most likely bring out and publish embarrassing matters and allegations against the other two gubernatorial candidates, in order to shame the opposition and hopefully remove their political winds.

For Arnold Palacios and David Apatang, the “independent/but still Republican” gubernatorial team, their supporters will argue that the allegations of wrongdoing and unlawful/unethical expenditure of public funds are entirely against Torres, and not Palacios.


As the second in command, Palacios cannot dictate to or tell Torres what to do or not do. He cannot tell Torres what is right and what is wrong. Torres should be able to discern for himself what the law on the expenditure of public funds requires. So, the voters of the CNMI can anticipate that the allegations of corruption and unlawful expenditure of public funds by Torres during his term in office will be the key highlight of the volatile campaigning that is expected to take place during the next eight months.


Torres has the unenviable distinction of being the only other CNMI governor to have been impeached while in office. Former governor Benigno R. Fitial, of course, was the first governor to be impeached, after which, he resigned from office. Whether Torres resigns from office after his impeachment or not, the stain of impeachment will always be with him. And it will not be something to be proud of.


Regardless of what Torres decides to do, the newly resurrected NMI Democratic Party will still come out swinging with all its might, as will the independent gubernatorial team of Palacios-Apatang.


The NMI Democrats will most likely use the following line: “The Republicans have ruled the CNMI for the past 20 years; and what have they done to improve the economy and livelihood of the people? Nothing. The economy has tanked for two decades, and the only thing keeping the CNMI afloat has been the financial assistance being received from the federal government through the efforts of Congressman Gregorio Kilili Sablan. The Republican administration of the CNMI has instead kept nepotism, cronyism and favoritism alive in governmental affairs and dealings.”


Indeed, during the Republican administration of the CNMI, the islands experienced their worst economic recession that has lasted for 20 years. The CNMI saw the demise of its two major industries: the garment industry and the Saipan casino industry. The CNMI also experienced for the first time the impeachment of a Republican/Covenant Party governor. The islands have suffered a series of black eyes and political embarrassment during the past two decades.


Whether the Palacios-Apatang independent team, if elected, will be able to turn things around will be seriously contested by the NMI Democratic Party, whose other fundamental message to the voters of the CNMI will likely be: “It is clearly time for a change from Republican rule to Democratic leadership. The status quo cannot continue because the CNMI would soon become bankrupt and internal self-government might likely fail.”


Jose S. Dela Cruz is a former chief justice of the CNMI Supreme Court. He is the author of “The Fundamental Issues Affecting the Northern Mariana Islands,” which was released in November 2021.



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