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I just came back from a ten-day trip to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) where I participated in the Election Observation Mission (EOM) funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The project was organized by the EWC’s Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP) together with the Asia Pacific Democracy Partnership (APDP), an informal coalition of democratic states formed to support, develop and extend democracy promotion in the region.
I truly feel honored and grateful for this precious opportunity. For me the Pacific Ocean is a living mysterious puzzle of the world. I didn’t have many ideas about the Pacific islands before. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that many Indonesians tend to ignore these islands. For me, the main story about the Pacific came from a few war movies and some readings about the Second World War, one of my areas of interest.
Visiting the FSM has given me an important opportunity to learn more and connect with the region. Before I left to the FSM I spent some time reading articles about the country and the region in general – the beauty of its lagoons, its historical stories, its people and cultures, and its role in the current context of global politics. Based on these readings and my personal experiences in the FSM and Chuuk state in particular, so far I have written 13 short articles that have been published in my newspaper’s online version and on my personal website. I hope these articles raise awareness amongst Indonesian readers about the Pacific islands in general and particularly, the FSM.
Observing the FSM and Chuuk State election was the APDP’s third mission since its establishment at the Asia Pacific Economy Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Sydney back in 2007. Before that, the Partnership had observed two elections, i.e. in Mongolia (June 2008) and Bangladesh (December 2008). For observing the FSM national and Chuuk State election, the APDP invited 18 people of diverse backgrounds including government officials, parliamentarians, academics and civil society, from ten countries including Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Palau, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and the United States. The EOM delegation was led by the Honorable Eni F. Faleomavaega, Congressman from American Samoa and Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Global Environment.
Situated 5,150 km southwest of Honolulu in the North Pacific Ocean; 2,195 km north of Papua New Guinea; and about three-quarters of the way between Hawaii and Indonesia, these stunning tropical islands are spread approximately 2,900 km across the archipelago of the Caroline Islands east of the Philippines. The archipelago consists of around 600 islands with four Principal Islands groups, i.e. Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. Each state is represented by one bright white star on the light blue background of the FSM national flag. There are seven official languages around the country, i.e. English, Ulithian, Woleaian, Yapese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, and Chuukese, and some other Micronesian languages, such as Pingelapese, Ngatikese, Satawalese, Kapingamarangi, Nukuoro, Puluwatese, Mortlockese, and Mokilese.
After ten hours of flying with stops in four airports – Majuro and Kwajelin of the Republic of Marshall Islands, Kosrae and Pohnpei –we arrived at Weno Island, the capitol of Chuuk State, on February 26. It was almost a week before the Election Day, March 3. We stayed in Truk Stop Hotel, in Weno downtown, about one kilometer from the airport.
From appearances one can simply conclude that, despite its amazing, awesome lagoons, and the hospitable and friendly Chuukese I met in the neighborhood, Chuuk State has many problems. There is a definite lack of public services, infrastructure, good quality roads, sufficient electricity, and clean water. Many buildings in town, including many government buildings, are in very poor condition. Abandoned wrecked cars are everywhere, even in front of most homes. Trash is also everywhere.
The condition of the outer islands is even worse. In Etten Island we passed one of the many abandoned school buildings. I am not trying to place undue attention on the widespread deplorable physical conditions in Chuuk State; this is just what I have seen, and it keeps me wondering how all these things can happen in a beautiful place like Chuuk Lagoon.
From many tourism websites, I got a sense that Chuuk would be like a living paradise with such beautiful scenery in many of its lagoons and around 60 warship wrecks from the Second World War’s 1944 Hailstone Operation, making the Lagoon one of the best places for diving and snorkeling. Yet, what I encountered was a real contradiction.
Fortunately the EOM delegation had individuals with a deep understanding about the Pacific. The “Pacific expert” group, I should say, consists of Dr. Gerard Finin and Scott Kroeker from the PIDP of the EWC, Dr. Brij Lal from the Australia National University (ANU), and Tutii Chilton and Olympia Morei from Republic of Palau.
One of the profound challenges in Chuuk State is the issue of land disputes among the people, families, and clans. This is the main reason why schools and other public facilities are abandoned, and car wrecks and trash are everywhere. Another basic problem is the corruption in government.
A student from Chuuk’s College of Micronesia (COM) showed me many places in town. He told me that even though it is not easy to prove government corruption, the indications are quite obvious and can be seen everywhere, referring to the bad quality of infrastructure.
He also told me that he felt his country is moving backward, instead of just stagnating or moving forward. He then emphasized that this year’s election is the most critical moment for the Chuukese people. This is the last chance for the Chuukese to choose whether they would like to keep this kind of what he called ‘miserable and depressed life’ forever, or to change it to a better situation; whether they want to make the government really work for the people, or not.
We didn’t have enough time to visit the three other states in FSM. But I was told that Chuuk is an unusual case and that in the other states we would find much better conditions that are totally different from what we have seen in Chuuk.
According to the FSM Constitution, The FSM Congress is a unicameral legislature body with 14 members; four members elected at large from each state on the basis of state equality, and ten members elected from congressional districts in each state apportioned by population. Four members elected on the basis of state equality serve for a 4-year term, and the ten members elected on the basis of population serve for a 2-year term. Since it is the biggest state in the FSM (with around 50 percent out of around 100,000 people in FSM), Chuuk State has six representatives in the FSM Congress. One is the member elected on the basis of state equality and five members are elected based on the population of each state. Meanwhile according to Chuuk State Constitution, Chuuk State has a bicameral parliament with 10 senators and 28 representatives. All Chuuk State Legislative members serve for a 2-year term.
This year, Chuuk State is the only state in FSM that organized two different level elections on the same day –one was for the FSM Congressional and another election was for the Chuuk State Legislative and Chuuk State Executive. In total, there were three elections in Chuuk State on the same time. Even though the elections were held on the same day, the elections were organized by different committees. The National Committee organized the FSM Congressional election and State Committee organized the Chuuk State Legislative and Chuuk State Executive election.
There is no formal political party in the FSM and Chuuk State unlike what is commonly found in what can be categorized as stable democratic countries. However, one thing is for sure, there are no restrictions or constraints from the government to form a political party. Despite all of the functions and purposes of political parties that we commonly understand from political science text books, it seems like people in FSM and Chuuk State just do not consider political parties as a prerequisite for democracy. We can simply say that in politics, Chuukese and Micronesians in general tend to cast their political preferences based on personal relationships, clanship and family-ties with the candidates. In Micronesia, politics is a family business. Nevertheless, the records show that the election turnout in the FSM and Chuuk State is quite high, around 80 percent.
Since we arrived in Weno almost a week prior to the election, we were able to explore the public sentiment and reflections on the election. During this “informal observation”time I had talked to some Chuukese about the coming election. Most of them were aware and alert about the election. Election is one of their routines since they have elections every two years.
We also heard from local people how each candidate has actively organized their supporters and held meetings with them up until the last day before the election.
I had an opportunity to interview one of governor candidates, Gillian Doone, a day before the election. He was the Chuuk State Director of Administrative Services (DAS) from October 2007 until May 2008. He is well known as a “no-man” person in Governor Wesley W. Simina’s administration. Governor Simina fired Doone after he refused to release allowance payments for the Chuuk State Legislature members. Insisting that the payment is against the Chuuk State Constitution, Doone filed a case against Governor Simina. Chuuk State Supreme Court has postponed the case until April 2009. I also have written a story based on my interview with him.
Prior to the Election Day, the College of Micronesia held a seminar titled 2009 Solutions Forum in which three gubernatorial candidates engaged in issue-based exchange. Broadcasted live on the radio in Chuuk, streamed live over the Internet, and extensively covered by Kaselehlie Press, the seminar, according to the EOM delegation in Chuuk State, was strong evidence of the open competitive campaign among the candidates. Over all the EOM delegation in Chuuk State concluded that the whole campaign during the week prior to the election was peaceful, lively and free of any form of intimidation by any of the candidates and their supporters.
All members of the EOM delegation in Chuuk State were divided into seven small-teams, mostly consisting of two observers; two local students functioning as the ‘door opener’ /translator; and a boat driver and navigator. My team was assigned to observe the voting process in four polling places in Polle Island, which is located in the most western point within the Chuuk Lagoon. The four polling places we observed were Chukuram, Malaio, Sapou and Neirenom, and on the way back to the Weno Island, we stopped and visited a polling place in Romonum Island. In total EOM delegation observed more than 50 out of 106 polling places across the Chuuk State, inside and outside Chuuk Lagoon.
We observed several items including how each committee organized the polling station and the voting booth; how the layout of each voting booth was set up; whether or not activities in the polling places were orderly and professional; how each individual involved in the voting process (i.e. poll workers, poll watchers, and the voters, etc.) perceived their role in the Election Day; whether the voters were able to cast secret ballots; and whether there was any presence of intimidation in the polling places.
The EOM delegation also observed the counting process in Weno Island. There was a difference in ballot counting procedure between the national election and state election. In the national election, all ballots were counted and tabulated at the polling places. The national election committee in each polling place then sent the official results to the national election committee office in Weno Island by radio and text messaging. Later on the poll workers in each polling place submitted the official written document. Meanwhile for the state level election, the polling workers transported the boxes from all polling places to Weno Island, where the counting process was held in several places.
After all observers reported and discussed all findings, the EOM delegation confidently considers that “the FSM Congressional and Chuuk State Executive and Legislative election on March 3 will reflect the will of people of the FSM,” and that some irregularities and procedural inconsistencies during the Election Day may “merit further investigation by election officials.” The EOM delegation in Chuuk State has also suggested that, “the ultimate legitimacy of the election can only be determined by the citizens of the FSM after all votes are tabulated and any challenges adjudicated.”
After all, for me as someone who is studying political science, and also a journalist, what I have seen and witnessed during my visit to the FSM and Chuuk State are highly precious. My interactions and discussions with all members of the EOM delegation and Chuukese people together with my experiences living for a short time in Chuuk help me to broaden and strengthen my perspective on many issues, including local politics, global politics, cultural diversity, and social development. I am thankful for all who made this unforgettable journey possible.