MAJURO — Facing a vote of no-confidence Monday in parliament, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine called the reasons advanced by political opponents for the vote “a smokescreen” to cover up their support for a Hong Kong promoter’s plan to establish an investor haven through a remote atoll in this nation.
Talking to the nation on the government’s radio station Saturday night, Heine said the five reasons for the no confidence motion advanced by opposition senators — including opposition to the government’s plan to launch a new digital currency —are not the real issue. She said the move to unseat her government is because it refused to endorse a proposed investment plan by a Hong Kong businessman.
Although this is the ninth vote of no confidence in the Marshall Islands since 1998, Monday’s vote marks the first time an outside investment proposal is part of the move to unseat a government.
Heine said in her broadcast remarks that the government evaluated the proposal for establishing an investor haven on Rongelap Atoll and determined that the negative impact on the country far outweighed any benefits.
A speech by parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi, who is backing the no confidence move, was scheduled for broadcast two hours after Heine’s talk Saturday night. But an unexpected power outage forced postponement of the broadcast. Majuro has been experiencing frequent power outages since two of the five working generators at its power plant have been off-line due to repair work.
Heine emphasized that the Marshall Islands is a democracy based on a constitution and laws. She pointed out that her government is focused on delivering results to improve living conditions for all Marshall Islanders. She listed the record-setting price paid by her administration for copra — dried coconut meat used to produce coconut oil — of 50 cents per pound and two increases in the minimum wage as evidence of government actions beneficial to all Marshallese.
The proposal to establish an investor haven based on Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands gained momentum in April when proponents held a launch for the plan in Hong Kong with much fanfare and media coverage. While announcing the plan for creating a high-tech investment area in the Marshall Islands earlier this year, proponents had not established the legal framework to make it happen in the Marshall Islands. In September, proponents lobbied government ministers to endorse draft legislation for establishing a Rongelap Atoll Special Administrative Region or RASAR so it could be introduced to parliament for action.
But a recently issued 41-page legal review issued by Marshall Islands Attorney General Filimon Manoni concluded that the legislation “is not fit for presentation to the Nitijela (parliament).” The Attorney General’s review said the proposal for a special administrative region was unconstitutional “given that the only form of political entity recognized under the Constitution, albeit with limited law-making powers, are local governments. The Constitution does not recognize the establishment of special autonomous regions, with political autonomy, as proposed in the draft bill.”
Heine and her Cabinet’s refusal to support the RASAR proposal for introduction to Nitijela angered proponents, who say the Marshall Islands needs to change its thinking to attract outside investors to boost the economy. In response to RASAR proponents, the President reportedly had government legal advisors draft legislation for a “special economic zone” — as distinct from establishing a separate autonomous entity — that was offered to RASAR proponents as an alternative concept last week shortly before the motion of no confidence filed with Nitijela.
Heine has been in office for 34 months, since toppling the three-week-old administration of President Casten Nemra in January 2016. She is the first and only head of state of an independent Pacific nation.
Monday’s vote will be preceded by debate on the motion by three representatives from each side, according to ground rules established last week by the Speaker.
Neither side appears to have a clear cut majority in the 33-seat parliament, making predictions of the outcome difficult.