As extreme drought continues to tighten its grip on Palau, the water crisis sparked a political showdown between disagreeing senators and President Tommy Remenegsau Jr. over the extension of the state of emergency (SOE) declaration.
Despite claiming that the consensus at the joint leadership meeting Wednesday showed that “SOE is crucial to mitigate this drought crisis we are experiencing,” Remengesau did not convince the senators to reconsider adopting the resolution calling for a third term of the SOE.
Seven senators rejected the extension on Tuesday unconvinced by the grounds cited by Remengesau and the National Emergency Committee (NEC) to warrant another SOE.
Members of the public and Senate attend the National Emergency Joint Leadership Meeting on April 13 to discuss the drought situation in Palau.. Photo by Ongerung Kambes Keseoli
Sen. Mark Rudimch said the Constitution is clear. “President shall not exercise emergency powers for a period of more than 10 days without the express and continuing consent of the Olbiil Era Kelulau”.
“Palau is now in a State of Emergency obviously due to the extremely low water-levels. The government mechanisms should be in place now to deal with the situation and it is the President’s constitutional prerogative to request for an extension or to re-declare a State of Emergency should he find it necessary to ensure continuity programs in place to deal with the ills of water shortage,” Rudimch said.
Citing the same provision in the Constitution, Sen. Sandra Pierantozzi said the government is already dealing with the crisis and do not find that there is a need for another extension.
Help to the people are in place and its not going to stop just because the Senate did not agree to an extension, she said.
“We are now providing waters to the people, so there’s no longer an emergency threat that merits the SOE,” Pierantozzi said.
She raised concern over giving the president extended legislative power under an SOE declaration.
Paramount Ibedul Yutaka Gibbons stood up and defended Remengesau’s action.However, it ensued a heated exchange between Pierantozzi and Gibbons, creating tension and division.
At one point House Speaker Sabino Anastacio spoke and criticized the senators' political motive behind the rejection of the SOE extension.
Pierantozzi said the president set them up to an attack from elected officials and traditional leaders by setting up the meeting.
“Nothing has changed,” Pierantozzi said, adding that the senators are standing behind their decision.
Sen. Surangel Whipps Jr. said the president could not justify why he needed an extended legislative power.
He said just because he is running against Remengesau, it doesn't mean he should abandon his job as a senator.
“I am currently a member of the Senate, there is a Constitution to follow and we are not voted by the people to follow the president,” Whipps Jr. said.
In an interview with Pacific Note, Whipps Jr, said the meeting did not really provide them with enough ground to reconsider their vote on the extension.
He said water deliveries, development of wells and aid from international organizations will continue even without the SOE extension because the drought has not ended yet.
Whipps Jr. said the meeting incited "mob mentality," the president, he said should have instead called for a meeting privately with the senators to iron out the issues.
Sen. Raynold Oiluch said their vote has a legal backing and that other lawyers on the island will agree.
Remengesau, however, insists an extension of the SOE “can only do good for our efforts in getting through this crisis. Nothing bad can come out of extending the SOE. I say again, the blame is on me. But I will say, that the responsibility to get through this without detriment to life, health, and property-belongs to all of Palau’s leadership.”
That afternoon, eight of the senators, in a letter to Senate President Elias Camsek Chin stated that the meeting did not provide answers to concerns raised on why the president needs an extension.
The senators also clarified that the lawmakers are ready to help in assisting in addressing the water crisis but it is also their duty to ensure that the "Constitution is not abused."
“This is one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make as senators, but our duty is to find the balance between meeting the most immediate needs of the people without sacrificing our most fundamental values as a democratic nation. We express our readiness and commitment to best address the drought crisis post SOE,” it said.
The letter was signed by Sens. Whipps Jr., Mason Whipps, Pierantozzi, Uduch Sengebau Senior, Regis Akitaya, Mlib Tmetuchl, Rukebai Inabo and Joel Toribiong.