Marshall Islands Correspondent

David Kabua was elected the ninth president of the Marshall Islands on Jan 6.
(From left): Kwajalein member of parliament and paramount chief Michael Kabua, Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios, President David Kabua, and U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands Karen Stewart.

Photo by Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — The Marshall Islands Nitijela (parliament) elected David Kabua the ninth president by a comfortable majority of 20-12 on Jan. 6.

Kabua and his new Cabinet were sworn in Jan. 13, and a formal inauguration is scheduled for Jan. 20 in Majuro.

Kabua carries on a long family tradition in politics. His father, Amata Kabua, was a paramount chief who was the country’s first president and founding father. His older brother, Jiba Kabua, was first elected to Nitijela in the 1990s, and returned to parliament in the recent election. His sister Amatlain was a long-time mayor of Majuro before embarking on a career as an ambassador for the Marshall Islands. The new president has been in parliament since 2008.

His election ended the term of President Hilda Heine, the first woman president of the Marshall Islands, who served for the past four years. Several of Heine’s backers in the parliament lost their bids for re-election in the November 2019 national election, paving the way for the change of government.

Kabua’s ascension to the position came as a result of a stalemate among three other candidates seeking their group’s support for the presidency. There are no formal political parties in the Marshall Islands. The current government is part of the camp of Michael Kabua, a long-time member of parliament from Kwajalein and the most powerful paramount chief in a country where customary authority is still dominant.

None of the three primary candidates — former presidents Christopher Loeak and Kessai Note, and current Speaker Kenneth Kedi — could muster the 17-vote support needed to make a clear run for the presidency. As this became apparent in late December in the lead up to the Jan. 6 Nitijela vote, Michael Kabua floated David’s name and ultimately gained his group’s support for his election. Michael is the new president’s uncle.

President Kabua and new First Lady Ginger Kabua have long operated a popular local restaurant, bakery, takeout and fuel station in Majuro. During his 12 years in parliament prior to assumption of his new role, Kabua has been viewed as a middle-of-the-road member of parliament not prone to confrontation nor controversy. He represents Wotho, one of the smallest atolls by population: The 2011 national census listed the population at 97, though many more who reside elsewhere claim ties to Wotho.

In brief remarks on the day of his election, the new president listed negotiations with the U.S. government for a new funding package as one of his top priorities.

The current grant agreement with the U.S. expires in 2023 and negotiations to extend this are anticipated to get underway later this year now that the new government is in place. Kabua also highlighted his concern about climate change and radiation contamination levels related to the Runit Dome at Enewetak Atoll, one of two nuclear weapons test sites in the nation in the 1940s and 1950s.

In light of power that member of parliament and paramount chief Michael Kabua will wield in the background, coupled with the presence of two Kabua family members in the new president’s cabinet, it can be expected that customary issues, particularly related to land use, will gain greater traction in government actions than had been the case during Heine’s administration.

The new president is expected to deliver a state of the nation speech at his Jan. 20 inauguration that will lay out priorities for his new administration. mbj