Several so called historic moments took place in the Marshall Islands’ Nitijela (parliament) during the past few weeks: about a third of the Nitijela seats were occupied by young newcomers; the President-elect was a freshman, indeed, a first-day-man in the Nitijela, he had deposed from his constituency a veteran of parliament, he was a surprise Presidential nominee, and was the youngest President-elect; veteran ministers and parliamentarians and traditional chiefs were excluded from Nitijela and the government, while surprising newcomers and independents were included; in a fortnight’s duration, the new President and Cabinet were in Nitijela facing removal by a vote of no confidence; in an entirely male-dominated parliament, a female candidate was nominated for the President’s office and she was unopposed; a debate grew about a non-debatable action in parliament—the election of the President. So, the final motion that Senator Silk introduced for a secret ballot to elect the sole nominee for President is worth some second thoughts.
To the surprise of those seated in the crowded Nitijela chamber, as soon as Senator Silk completed his sentence one person clapped politely and briefly. Gauging by the looks of the audience, perhaps this also was without precedent. Clapping in parliament is a motion that is not prompted. In some parliaments it is frowned upon, in others it is the norm, in some it is allowed in some situations and not in other contexts, in some the Speaker regulates this motion or its variations such as clapping on the sides of the chairs or thumping on the desk or standing ovations or saying “hear hear”. The previous day, as the results of the vote of no-confidence against former President Nemra’s Cabinet were tabulated, Speaker Kedi had astutely interrupted the count. He instructed that no one should clap. During the past two weeks, on many occasions the Speaker had invited a clapping applause for other results and reasons. Some parliamentarians had spontaneously clapped after bold speeches had been made during the debates before and after the vote of no-confidence motion was introduced.
The introduction of the final motion by Senator Silk, with no prompting by the Speaker, was a move that can been viewed as showing a respect not only for the law but also a timely accommodation of the positions held by the two Senators – Note and Riklon (remarkable because both Senators were members of the governing and opposing party to Senator Silk’s). Both Senators had insisted on the Nitijela’s attention and adherence to the Constitutional letter and procedure even if the brief opinions of the relatively young and bashful Acting Attorney General and sort-of-but-not-entirely-convincing Legal Counsel appeared to vary with these interpretations. Senator Riklon had earlier argued politely that according to the Constitution, 14 days had to lapse before another President could be elected. This argument had been overruled by the Speaker, again after the legal opinions of the Legislative Counsel had been recorded. Senator Note had insisted on the casting of the secret ballot. The Senators had persisted even when the Speaker Kedi had plainly cited these opinions as the basis of the Speaker’s impending if not already evident decision on the deemed election of a President by sole nomination. Both soft-spoken Senators requested repeatedly a cautious approach to avoid any ambiguous precedents even if precedents (rightly or wrongly) had already been set in previous elections. Such precedents had been pointed out during the debate. Ironically, one precedent that was contrary to Senator Note’s persistent demand took place when Senator Note had been President!
It can be easily said that both Senators (Ministers at that moment) were deploying a delay-tactic to prolong the life-in-office of the cabinet. However, it can also be suggested that casting a secret ballot in a finale of the electoral process served another purpose. The presidential sole nominee – Dr. Heine was nominated by a self-described less than a fortnight-old coalition. Unprecedented maneuvering, jockeying, shifting and cross-over of party lines, changing membership by number surprising changes in alliances, lobbying by traditional chiefs, the untimely death of an extremely popular high chief presidential candidate, forming of sub-blocs known by colorful descriptions such as traditional twelve solid six fanatic four, claims of buying of membership in parties, forgetting of vows to exclude so-and-so, feuding and solidarity of family, refusals, resignations, ministerial office invitations open until the last minute of the Presidential re-election, etc. had become a well-known and nerve-wracking feature of the political battle for the government during the past month: clearly, loyalties were anything but loyalties; any Senator-voter(s) could change his or her decision at any moment. A secret ballot would colorlessly cast the die, thus making the votes fungible. This is an essence of a democratic free election.
Beyond that, the motion was an expression of an experienced parliamentarian’s intuitive solution to correctly end an impasse that at face value appeared meaningless. Indeed another Senator, Kramer had been quick to fret and seek an immediate dispensation of a “waste time” matter. It was not. Senator Silk’s move also averted notions of a potential legal battle or of a deliberately overlooked procedure in a matter of Constitutional and national importance. It also saved face all around the membership of the Nitijela. These are not trivial facets of the art of the political battle. A save-face tactic is appreciated when battle weary opponents who assuredly are destined to meet each other yet another day are compelled to bluntly face each other with a foregone conclusion.
It is irrelevant whether Senator Silk appreciated or not that Ministers Note and Riklon’s firm stance and demand also covertly allowed for a larger number than 21 senators to vote for President elect (at that moment), Dr. Heine. Nor is it relevant that in a statesman-like move Minister/Senator Note already may have deliberately considered and made space for such a consequence. The result …24, (three more than the predictable 21 votes in favor) itself is relevant. It is a symbolic number that may be optimistically interpreted as if despite the political battles of the past months and weeks some minority number members now accepted the uncomfortable reality of the situation and symbolically said – we are all here, we are willing to move forward and work together.
Rising above partisanship and above party, Senator Silk’s motion, wittingly or not, led to a placated polite procedural election in the Nitijela with Dr. Hilda C. Heine as the elected President. Surely, that final motion deserved an applause; even if only one (just a number) person clapped! After all, when, in an unprecedented moment, as the number goes…if you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it….clap your hands.