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The Marshall Islands held parliamentary elections in November 2011, in which the Aelon Kein Ad party captured the largest number of seats. Numerous officials, including a cabinet minister, faced charges stemming from a scheme to defraud the government, and Kwajalein landowners agreed to lease their land to the United States for $32 million a year through 2066.
The atolls and islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands were claimed by Germany in 1885 and occupied by Japan during World War I. The islands came under U.S. control during World War II, and the United States administered them under United Nations trusteeship in 1947. The Marshall Islands became an independent state in 1986.
In the 2007 legislative elections, the Aelon Kein Ad (AKA) party captured 18 seats, while the United Democratic Party (UDP) took 15 seats. In 2008, lawmakers elected Litokwa Tomeing as president. A no-confidence vote in October 2009 ousted Tomeing, and Jurelang Zedkaia, the speaker of the legislature, was chosen to succeed him later that month.
The Marshall Islands maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association. The first compact, which came into force in 1986, allows the United States to maintain military facilities in the Marshall Islands in exchange for defense guarantees, development assistance, and visa-free access for Marshallese to live, work, study, and obtain health care and social services in the United States. The Marshall Islands relies on compact funds for almost 70 percent of its annual budget.
An amended compact with new funding and accountability requirements took effect in 2004 and will run through 2023. The deal authorized the Marshall Islands to receive annual transfers of $57 million from the United States until 2013 and $62 million from 2014 to 2023. In exchange, the United States will have use of the Kwajalein missile-testing site—the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles—through 2066. Local populations have expressed concern about the about potential health and environmental hazards posed by the testing facility; Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable and Enewetak Atoll is partly contaminated. A $150 million Nuclear Claims Fund provides compensation for past, present, and future Marshallese victims, though some critics charge that the fund is inadequate. The U.S. government has rejected additional compensation on the basis that it has already paid $1.5 billion in personal injury and property damages under the original compact. In May 2011, after years of negotiations, a group of Kwajalein landowners agreed to lease their land to the United States for a total of $32 million through 2066.
With limited education and employment opportunities, about one-third of the country’s citizens live overseas, mostly in the United States. The government adopted new austerity measures in its 2011 budget in order to counter the impact of the global economic downturn; the economy was also damaged by lower returns on investments in its trust fund and a 20-year low in tourism. The government initiated a large-scale audit of government spending from 2007 to 2011 after law enforcement discovered that more than $500,000 in U.S. grants to the Ministry of Health had been stolen.
Parliamentary elections held on November 21 saw a high voter turnout, with no reports of fraud or violence. Absentee ballots from overseas voters were allowed through December 5. Official election results published in early December did not give a clear majority to either the AKA or UDP. However, the AKA eventually controlled 20 seats after victorious independent candidates joined the party. The parliament had not selected a new president by year’s end.
The Marshall Islands is an electoral democracy. The president is chosen for a four-year term by the unicameral parliament (Nitijela), from among its 33 members, who are directly elected to four-year terms. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroij), consists of 12 traditional leaders who are consulted on customary law. The two main political parties are the AKA and the UDP.
Corruption is a serious problem. In January 2011, the government launched an extensive probe into a scheme to defraud the Marshall Islands. By July, 12 people were charged, including transportation and communication minister Kenneth Tedi, marking the first time in the country’s history that a cabinet minister faced criminal charges. Tedi entered a no-contest plea and received a 30-day suspended jail sentence and a fine of $1,000; critics argued that the penalty was too light.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes articles in English and Marshallese. The government’s Marshall Islands Gazette provides official news but avoids political coverage. Broadcast outlets include both government- and church-owned radio stations, and cable television offers a variety of international news and entertainment programs. Residents in some parts of the country can also access U.S. armed forces radio and television. The government does not restrict internet access, but penetration rates are low due to cost and technical difficulties.
Religious and academic freedoms are respected in practice. The quality of secondary education remains low and four-year college education is rare.
Citizen groups operate freely in the country. Many are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association to cover trade unions.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. Nearly all judges and attorneys are recruited from overseas. To ease the increasing backlog of land dispute cases, the government revived use of Traditional Rights Courts (TRC) in May 2010 to make advisory rulings to the High Court. Police brutality is generally not a problem, and detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.
The Marshall Islands has a tradition of matrilineal inheritance in tribal rank and personal property, but social and economic discrimination against women is widespread. Women’s rights groups say that few women obtain jobs outside the home or hold positions in government. Tensions between the local population and Chinese migrants are increasing, as Chinese businesses control much of the retail sector.