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Johnson Toribiong was elected president in November 2008 elections, defeating Elias Camsek Chin, the former vice president. Elections for the Senate and House of Delegates were also held in November. Several prominent officials were charged during the year with misuse of public office and corruption. The future of U.S. assistance to Palau was a salient political issue throughout 2008, with funding scheduled to end in 2009.
The United States administered Palau, consisting of eight main islands and more than 250 smaller islands, as a UN Trust Territory from 1947 until 1981, when it became a self-governing territory. Palau gained full independence in 1994 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The compact stipulates that the United States will grant Palau a total of $442 million in economic aid for 15 years between 1994 and 2009; allow Palauan citizens to reside, work, and study in the United States and its territories and have access to a variety of federal government programs; and defend Palau in exchange for U.S. military access to the archipelago until 2044. A trust fund was created in 1994 to provide support to Palau when direct U.S. assistance is scheduled to end in 2009.
Tommy Esang Remengesau was first elected president in 2000 and won a second term in the 2004 general election. In a referendum held concurrently with the 2004 polls, voters endorsed the initiation of a constitutional convention in 2005 to consider amendments to the constitution, including restricting parliamentary terms to three years, making legislative posts part-time positions, and switching to a unicameral legislature to save money. The review, completed in 2005, approved 25 proposed amendments for citizens to vote on in the general election on November 4, 2008.
Johnson Toribiong was elected president in the November 2008 elections, defeating Elias Camsek Chin, the former vice president. Parliamentary elections were also held in November. Turnout was high—10,473 out of 14,196 registered voters—to elect new members to the Senate and House of Delegates. All of the 43 candidates for the 9 Senate seats and the 44 candidates for the 16 House seats ran as independents. How to sustain the island’s economy, which is highly dependent on U.S. assistance, was the central political issue, as U.S. funding is scheduled to end in 2009.
Palau is an electoral democracy. The November 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections, in which Johnson Toribiong was elected president, were considered free and fair.The bicameral legislature, the Olbiil Era Kelulau, consists of the nine-member Senate and the 16-member House of Delegates. Legislators are elected to four-year terms by popular vote, as are the president and vice president. The president may serve only two terms consecutively. The country is organized into 16 states, each of which is headed by a governor, and each with a seat in the House of Delegates. The capital, formerly in Koror, was moved to Melekeok in 2006.
There are no political parties, but there are no laws against their formation. The prevalent system of loose political alliances that quickly form and dismantle has had a destabilizing effect on governance in recent years.
Official corruption and abuses are serious problems, and several high-ranking public officials have been found guilty of corruption and misconduct in recent years. To further improve accountability and curb corruption, the legislature in 2007 removed the six-year statute of limitations on filing charges against public officials to allow more time to investigate and prosecute suspects. A U.S. audit reported in June 2008 that the country had made progress in transparency and financial accountability. Nevertheless, a number of prominent public officials were charged during the year with misuse of public funds and corruption, including the directors and officers of the former Pacific Savings Bank and members of the Trustees for the Civil Service Pension Plan and the Melekeok state governor. Palau was not rated in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are respected. There are three major print publications: Tia Belau and Palau Horizon are English-language weeklies, and Roureur Belau is a Palauan weekly. There are five privately owned radio stations and one privately owned television station. Most households receive cable television, which rebroadcasts U.S. and other foreign programs. The internet is accessible without government interference, but diffusion is limited by cost and a lack of access outside the main islands.
Citizens of Palau enjoy freedom of religion. Although the government requires religious organizations to register with the Office of the Attorney General, no application has ever been denied. There have been no reports of restrictions on academic freedom, and the government provides well-funded basic education for all.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Many nongovernmental groups focus on youth, health, and women’s issues. No laws or policies bar formation of trade unions. The economy, based largely on subsistence agriculture, is heavily dependent on U.S. aid and rent payments, as well as remittances from citizens working overseas. The government and the tourist industry are the main employers.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally fair. A 300-member police and first-response force maintains internal order. Palau has no military. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse or extreme hardship for inmates.
Foreign workers account for about one-third of the population and 75 percent of the workforce.There have been reports of discrimination against and abuse of foreign workers, who are legally barred from changing employers once they are inside Palau; they are paid US$1.50 per hour compared to US$2.50 for Palauans. Foreigners are said to use fake marriages to exploit privileges regarding access to the United States under the compact. There have been reports of human trafficking from China, the Philippines, and Taiwan into Palau as a conduit to the United States.
There is high regard for women in this matrilineal society, in which land rights and familial descent are traced through women. This has allowed many women to be active in both traditional and modern sectors of the economy, as well as in politics. However, there are currently no women represented in the legislature. Domestic violence and child abuse cases are frequently linked to alcohol and drug abuse. The number of cases reported remains small. Prostitution and sexual harassment are illegal; the law prohibits rape, including spousal rape.