Koror, Palau — Capping a chaotic prelude to election marked by a court battle over election date and a bitter fight between two brothers-in-law, Palau’s 15,000 registered voters headed to the polls on Nov. 1 to decide the direction Palau will take over the next four years. Palau plays a big role in changing Pacific landscape.
Incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Jr. prepares for his fourth term, but as of press time, his victory was hanging by a thread. Initial results as of Nov. 2 showed Remengesau leading the presidential race with 4,108 votes over his brother-in-law, Surangel Whipps Jr., who received 4,030. There were still more than 2,900 absentees votes scheduled to be counted on Nov. 8.
Historically, only a few percentage points separate the winner and the loser. Many candidates thus focus on the absentee votes to increase the chances of winning.
Remengesau had a margin of more than 1,000 votes during the September primary, in which Vice President Antonio Bells and Sen. Sandra Pierantozzi were eliminated.
While Remengesau seemed to remain popular, results from Koror and Airai showed Palau’s most populous states preferred his brother-in-law. Whipps led the race in these two states, with 1,832 votes, over Remengesau’s 1,667.
Political supporters stand by the roadside during a rush hour in Koror to make a last-minute pitch for the candidates they support. Photo by Ongerung Kambes Kesolei
Climate change champion
In seeking another term, Remengesau noted that Palau, under his leadership, turned into a globally-recognized leader in climate change and marine protection. He cited the relationships he has sustained since entering politics.
Whipps, a two-term senator and successful businessman, solidified his popularity in the republic. He promised to take Palau toward a different route taken by Remengesau and to mark a turning point in Palau's future.
“We're in denial; our kids have no jobs. They're selling drugs and migrating en masse to the United States to look for opportunities," Whipps told a presidential debate last month.
In a speech before the September primary, Remengesau flashed his accomplishment card. “We have worked with national congress and traditional leaders, state governments; we have done a lot of good things in the last three years.,” he said. “We want to work together to accomplish what we started.”
As brothers-in-law, the relationship between Remengesau and Whipps were strained by politics.
Whipps is married to Remengesau’s sister and for the incumbent president the fight is tough. “This is an unusual election not only for me but for the history of presidential elections in Palau. I really wish it wasn't the case,” the president said in an earlier interview.
But for Whipps, “this is not about us, it’s about Palau.”
Palauan voters also cast their votes for vice president, 13 senators and 16 delegates. Several women candidates ran in this year’s elections. And for the first time, there were six uncontested candidates out of 16 for House seats.
The social media also emerged as a star of the show during the election season. Despite the still poor Internet service in Palau, the social media was widely used as a political tool in island politics.
In an election that witnessed the interactions between Remengensau and Whipps, their supporters took a very different approach through their use of social media, using it as platform for personal attacks and vilification.
Souang Tellei, a young voter in Palau, observed that social media had indeed become a more powerful tool in politics. "Some candidates use social media to invite the electronically savvy to events while constituents– even those who are not voting age– can challenge the positions, platforms, and past decisions made by their candidates," she said.
"The readily-available social network connections can also lend to some taking a reactionary stance, and I think campaigns have had to be diligent in policing their media posts since there have been a few posts by some candidates' camps that have sparked outrage over social media,” Tellei told Pacific Note.
Sha Merirei Ongelungel , founder of Merirei Media Group and Native ExPat Radio, a locally-owned radio company said social media now carries influence with the electorate.
“I think, as we progress and look toward the future of politics and voting, it would be negligent on any candidate's part to downplay the role of social media because it also downplays the voices of citizens who cannot be present or are otherwise unable to speak up in a more present and physical sense, “ Ongelungel said.