Country in the west Pacific Ocean, part of Micronesia, occupying 31 atolls (the Ratak and Ralik chains).
The Marshall Islands has a mixed parliamentary and presidential political executive. Its 1979 constitution provides for a 33-member single-chamber assembly, the Nitijela, elected by universal adult suffrage for a four-year term. The Nitijela elects a president from among its members as head of state and government. The president heads an 11-member cabinet. There is also a 12-member consultative Council of Chiefs (Iroij), comprising traditional tribal leaders, which deals with matters relating to land and custom.
Initially settled by Micronesians in the 2nd millennium BC, the islands were first sighted by Spanish explorers in the 16th century AD. The islands were named after the British Captain John Marshall, who visited them in 1788. The islands were colonized by Germany from 1885 and later formed part of the protectorate of German New Guinea. They were occupied by Japan during World War I and Japan was given a League of Nations mandate to govern them 1920. During World War II they were occupied by the USA from 1944 and in 1947 became part of the United Nations (UN) Pacific Islands Trust Territory, administered by the USA. The Enewetak and Bikini atolls were used for US atom bomb tests 1946-63.
From 1965 there were demands for greater autonomy and the islands went through successive stages of decolonization. In 1979 it became self-governing and in 1986, under a Compact of Free Association with the USA, a sovereign state, but with the USA responsible for defence of the islands and continued military use of the missile testing range at Kwajalein atoll. (The Compact was extended in 2004 for 20 years.) The UN trusteeship agreement was formally ended in December 1990. The islands became a fully independent state and were admitted into the UN in September 1991.
Changes of leadership
Amata Kabua, acting president from 1979, was re-elected in 1991 as the first president of the independent state, and again in 1995. He died in December 1996, and in January 1997 the Nitijela (legislature) elected his cousin, Imata Kabua, as his successor in a contested ballot. Imata Kabua was a powerful traditional chief from Kwajalein Atoll, the site of a US missile test facility for which rental payments of $7 million per year were received, making him one of the richest people in the Marshall Islands.
Following the general elections of November 1999, Kessai H Note of the United Democratic Party became president. He was the first commoner (rather than traditional chief) to become president and was of Japanese-Marshallese descent. He took office in January 2000 and was re-elected by the assembly in January 2004. Note sought re-election again in January 2008, after the November 2007 assembly elections, but was defeated by Litokwa Tomeing, of the United People's Party/Kabua Party coalition.
Tomeing was removed from office in October 2009 when he lost narrowly a vote-of-no-confidence, in a motion led by Note. Ruben Zackhras took over as acting president for several weeks, pending a new election. This was won by Jurelang Zedkaia, by 17 to 15 votes. Zedkaia, a traditional chief (Iroij) of Majuro Atoll, was sworn in as president in November 2009.
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