POHNPEI (PACIFIC ISLAND TIMES) — The 23rd FSM Congress began its first regular session on 11 May and elected the president and vice president of the Federated States of Micronesia.
The election of the president from Chuuk and the vice president from Kosrae created vacancies in the four-year-term at-large seats for those states. On 04 July, a special election was held to fill those vacancies.
Typically, the senators-elect resulting from the special election held after every leadership transition, are sworn in immediately prior to the joint inauguration ceremony in Palikir. The president was sworn in on 11 May, but a joint inauguration ceremony was held in July to accommodate the two new senators.
For senator-elect Yoslyn Sigrah, the FSM Congress’ credentials committee did not formally adopt its credentials report until 28 September.
Senator Joseph J. Urusemal, a former FSM president, read portions of the report that upheld Sigrah’s eligibility to serve.
A lawyer and human rights advocate, Sigrah was the recipient of the FSM Presidential Outstanding Citizens Award in 2014.
Her eligibility was certified by the FSM Department of Justice, every attorney general of each state, the FSM Supreme Court and FSM State Supreme Court, as well as the national election director.
The report was signed by senators from Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei—but not Kosrae.
Sigrah was formally supported by Kosrae Gov. Tulensa W. Palik on 26 September and Kosrae Speaker Semeon Philip on 27 September.
Urusemal, however, shunned the official backing and the certification of Sigrah’s qualification. Citing the Constitution, he said, “Congress shall be the sole judge of the elections and qualifications of its members.”
“Based on our careful review and deliberations of the qualifications of member-elect Yoslyn Sigrah… [the committee] does not recommend the credentials of Yoslyn Sigrah to be accepted,” Urusemal said. “Yoslyn Sigrah should not be seated as a member…due to the character and fitness concerns raised from the background checks conducted.”
Under the FSM Constitution, the eligibility requirements to become a member of Congress include:
*Must be at least 30 years of age
*Must be an FSM citizen.
*Must have resided in the state that he/she is running for at least five years.
*Must be mentally competent.
*Must not have a felony conviction.
Sigrah met these requirements.
Critics, however, pointed out that if the FSM Congress were to uphold these requirements consistently, then Aren Palik— who was elected in 2019 but previously resided full-time in Guam— would have been disqualified.
Senator Paliknoa K. Welly—the only sitting senator representing Kosrae—told the Congress, “Once again, the wish of the people and State of Kosrae are being ignored and this is one more reason why Kosrae should look for further political alternatives and to secede from this federation. Our future and destiny should not be dictated by Chuuk, Pohnpei and Yap.”
Welly’s remarks about Kosrae’s secession from the FSM did not come as a surprise to observers given that this has been a recurring suggestion.
Gerson Jackson, a member of the FSM’s Joint Committee on Compact Review and Planning, previously suggested Kosraean secession in public venues such as the Second FSM Resources & Development Conference in January 2022. Welly, when serving in the 22nd FSM Congress, sought to appropriate funding for a Kosraean Political Status Commission.
Pohnpei’s Political Status Commission, by contrast, was constructed without the Pohnpei governor or legislature asking for FSM domestic revenue to fund its operations. Proponents of Pohnpei secession, such as Senators Jayson Walter and Herolyn Semes-Movick, never requested FSM domestic revenue for such activity.
On 30 September, Congress passed a piece of legislation to fund a special election for Kosrae’s at-large senator. On the very same day, Vice President Aren Palik signed it into law on behalf of Simina.
Other than the increasingly public-facing dramatics with the FSM Congress disallowing Kosraean voters from choosing their own elected representative, observers noted that none of Simina’s cabinet members are Kosraean.
By the end of Simina’s term, a Kosraean will have held the vice presidency for 20 years straight—largely on the premise that a person has more power and influence, and significantly less public visibility, as a four-year senator than as the vice president of the FSM. Yet, no Kosraean has ever been elected to the presidency.
The only Kosraean president, Jacob Nena, inherited the office after Bailey Olter suffered from a stroke—thus Welly’s remarks that Kosraeans are not being heard resonates widely with his constituents.
Former President David W. Panuelo warned of the FSM facing plausible democratic backsliding and further described his concerns in combination—whether or not coordinated — with increased malign influence from foreign actors.
Adding to Kosreans’ frustrations, the FSM Congress reneged on its promise made earlier this year to the FSM state governments. The state governments—in coordination with the national government, including Simina and representatives of the FSM Congress—developed the Arngel Consensus, which would give the national government eight percent of funding from the Compact of Free Association.
The FSM Congress, however, passed legislation to raise the funding to 10 percent and then overrode a presidential veto.
Altering the distribution formula for the compact after creating one in good faith cooperation with the FSM state governments runs the risk of exacerbating the citizens’ disenfranchisement with national leadership.
The juxtaposition of Kosraeans not having their votes respected by the FSM Congress; having the agreed-upon distribution formula of compact funds altered without their consent, never mind their consultation; and the contemporary U.S Congress’ failings as it relates to the passage of the compact, has created an opening for additional China malign influence—in both Kosrae and the rest of the FSM, providing a further avenue for democratic backsliding in the country.
On Sept. 30, for example, a Kosrae official was confirmed to attend the U.S-Taiwan Global Cooperation Training Framework to receive practical training in a maritime disasters workshop.
Two Kosrae officials, and two FSM national government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the governor of Kosrae canceled the trip on 03 October.
State and national officials said the governor was pressured by the Chinese embassy not to engage with Taiwan.
China’s interference in this area is not unprecedented. During the Panuelo administration, a former foreign service officer of the FSM Department of Foreign Affairs was invited to attend a training offered by the Pacific Islands Development Program in Hawaii, but was given an ultimatum by FSM foreign affairs officials to either decline attendance or resign from their position, on the premise that the programme was partially funded by Taiwan.
The official chose not to attend the training so as to keep their position in the FSM government.
Sources said the FSM national government pledged to provide Kosrae with US$20 million in funding donated by China, though the funding source was not described.
The FSM has not yet spoken out on China’s increasing malign activity in the Philippines, despite video evidence or other forms of China’s increased aggression.
Why the above should ultimately matter to stakeholders of the FSM’s democracy is that even when the malign activity occurs at home, it gets ignored by the national leadership.
The FSM national government chose to not respond or intervene when Panuelo was accosted by Chinese diplomats photographing his family and home on 17 September, leaving the former president to confront the diplomats (in plain clothes) himself.
The thematic connection is clear: the FSM leadership that refuses to recognize the results of a democratic election— as in the case of Sigrah— is the same leadership that breaks its promises on U.S. funding distribution. This is the same leadership that is interested in China’s money and relations so as it ignores abuses abroad as well as those aimed at FSM citizens.
Observers suggest that if the FSM Congress believed in the rule of law and principles of democracy, then it would respect Kosraean voters and formally seat Sigrah…. PACNEWS