Casten Nemra new RMI President

Newly elected President Casten Nemra spoke briefly to the nation at parliament following his election Monday. Photo by Hilary Hosia.

The Marshall Islands parliament elected its youngest President, and only the second commoner to hold the head of state position, Monday morning in Majuro.

The narrow vote for newcomer Casten Nemra, 44, who defeated seven-term parliament veteran Alvin Jacklick, 17-16, demonstrates how evenly divided the 33-seat chamber is.

Nemra’s election on his first day in the parliament representing Jaluit Atoll is another first for the Marshall Islands and reflects brilliant back room maneuvering in the lead up to Monday’s election by members of the government of outgoing President Christopher Loeak, who were led by Kwajalein Senator and traditional chief Michael Kabua.

Nemra and new Speaker Kenneth Kedi, of Rongelap, were both born in 1971 and their elections represent a generation change in the parliament.

But the story of Monday’s vote is how Kabua and members of the outgoing Loeak administration out-maneuvered the coalition put together by the opposition KEA Party and a team of newly elected independents who had come together calling themselves the “Solids.”

This opposition coalition successfully elected its nominees for Speaker and Vice Speaker, Kedi and Arno Senator Jejwarick Anton, respectively, by identical 19-14 margins.

In the lead up to the Presidential election, three names had been discussed as possible presidential candidates for the Loeak government: President Loeak, Education Minister Dr. Hilda Heine, and Internal Affairs Minister David Kabua. At Monday’s opening, outgoing President Loeak was unsuccessfully nominated for Speaker by Michael Kabua against Kedi.

But when it came to the president’s vote, Michael Kabua nominated Nemra, an unexpected development for many election observers. Nemra was one of the newly elected members of parliament who was initially considered for president during a “primary” vote held 10 days ago by the opposition coalition, but did not get enough votes to gain the nomination over Jacklick from the coalition. In Monday’s election, Nemra edged Jacklick by one vote, causing another unprecedented development for the new parliament: a Speaker and Vice Speaker elected by one group and the President elected by another.

While new to parliament, Nemra has been the government’s highest civil servant for eight years through three different governments as Chief Secretary. He and newcomer Daisy Alik Momotaro, one of three women now in parliament, won the two Jaluit seats, one of which was vacated by Jacklick who successfully ran from Kwajalein, where he joined new colleague David Paul in upending incumbent Foreign Minister Tony deBrum and government incumbent Senator Jeban Riklon.

Like the last three governments since 2008, Nemra will lead a coalition cobbled together representing the bare minimum of senators needed to form a government.

Nemra is expected to announce his Cabinet in the next few days and a formal inauguration will be forthcoming. Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Cadra swore in the Nitijela before the voting, and delivered the oath of office to Kedi and Anton. The new President and his Cabinet will be sworn in after the ministers are named by Nemra.