By Dr. Gerard Finin, Deputy Director of PIDP and project director of the Election Observation Mission
In November 2008 the Department of State contacted the East-West Center to discuss the possibility of submitting a competitive grant proposal to lead an international Election Observation Mission to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The FSM is a country that has a long and close association with the East-West Center. Prior to nationhood in 1986, the EWC during the UN Trust Territory era made special efforts to recruit and help educate future leaders from across Micronesia. Based on initiatives undertaken both before and after independence, some 725 individuals from the FSM have participated in EWC programs, with 46 baccalaureate or master’s degrees being awarded through the University of Hawaii. All but one of the FSM’s presidents is counted as part of the EWC alumni organization.
A critical prerequisite to our involvement hinged on receiving the FSM’s invitation to have an international Election Observation Mission organized by the EWC. Based on our years of cooperative activities with FSM, we were aware of the strong overall record of holding fair and honest elections that were free of bribery, coercion or violence. However, the dearth of national and local newspapers or news organizations suggested there might be insufficient critical oversight or public knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of election protocols and processes. To be sure, we were aware of the logistical complexities posed by hundreds of voting sites that are distant from administrative centers.
Given the high level of trust built upon the extensive alumni network, the Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program proceeded to put together a high quality team of observers, many of whom had previously spent time at the EWC. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor also provided significant assistance by suggesting individuals who were well qualified for the EOM activity. Once in country, EWC alumni from the College of Micronesia Chuuk campus were particularly helpful in providing faculty for the group’s orientation program, and also identifying some of Chuuk’s best and brightest college students to accompany the observers to their home islands on Election Day, March 3, where they served as interpreters.
While the full report of the 2009 Election Observation Mission to the FSM has yet to be completed, it is clear that there is widespread grassroots support for free and fair elections across the nation. It was an impressive sight to see voters patiently waiting their turn to cast ballots, even if this meant standing in the hot sun. I was particularly impressed by the peaceful nature of Election Day, with the only reports of violence coming from an outdoor polling station in urban Honolulu. Despite the sensitive nature of having outside observers present for what in some cases were highly contested races, particularly state contests in Chuuk, there was a remarkable air of openness and impressive hospitality extended to virtually all of the groups visiting polling stations on Election Day.
After years of meeting and occasionally working with members of the Chuukese community in Honolulu, it was wonderful to see their impressive society first-hand. Although based only on several weeks of working in the capital of Weno, jogging at the beautiful community park, and visiting the vibrant seaside Chuuk college campus, I was deeply moved by the civility, courtesy and friendliness extended to strangers. To be sure, the people of Chuuk have much to be proud of that extends well beyond their reputation as a premier site for shipwreck diving. It is a place that I very much look forward to visiting and learning more about in the future.