Johnson Toribiong’s Presidency: A Mixed Legacy

Tia Belau Editorial, December 10, 2012 —-

In almost 4-weeks time on January 17, 2013, Johnson Toribiong’s term as president of the Republic of Palau comes to an end.

He joins Ngiratkel Etpison as the only two presidents to lose reelection bid for second term in office. But while Etpison was a calming force after the turbulent 80’s of government workers strike, firebombing, killings, furlough, and breakdown of the rule of law, President Toribiong however, leaves office with accusations of weakening the rule of law, left many questions unanswered, and a split public that has come to define today’s political landscape.

As Toribiong closes out his presidency, no one knows what his plans are for the future. He could retire from politics and enjoy being called the title of “president” for the rest of his life. He could reopen his law firm just to keep him busy and in the thick of things, or who knows, he just might give another go at the presidency.

President Johnson Toribiong leaves office with a mixed legacy. He is adored by some in the business community with his take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to Palau’s economic development. He is, however, equally feared by others who saw his first bill “Foreign Investment Act of 2009” as an advocate for less restrictions of Palau to foreign direct investment which could result in driving many small time Palauans out of business.

He leaves office with Palau still  facing serious problems. The leadership still has not invested the $5 million as originally intended to start up the Health Care Fund; our retiree’s Pension Plan at this rate can’t be sustained and is predicted to be insolvent within 15 years; Social Security gets no remittance which adds on to its unfunded accrued liabilities.

The country never solved its poor spending habits, as the administration admittedly went beyond $2 million in illegal over expenditures. As one of the many first recorded by this administration, a multiple supplemental budgets were requested in one fiscal year to pay for government operations.

The country has seen record breaking tourists’ arrivals to the island. More airlines with more flight connections are bringing in tourists from many Asian destinations. But while Palau boasts the huge increase in arrivals, enduring economic hardships continue to impose harsh realities on the 69 percent of the workforce who are making $12,000 or less.

Minimum wage was not going to be the legacy of this 8th constitutional government, much less this president. Distrust of the administration to address the pay issue was evident. Nurses took a day to protest for better salaries and improved work conditions. Minister of Health came out pleading to the public for their support to secure  funding for medicinal and medical supplies before they run out. Minister of Education recently ask the administration for additional school lunch money and at the same time the public schools continue to face shortage of classroom teachers.

The only salaries addressed was not for the rank-and-file but for the elected leaders and the ministerial appointees. RPPL No. 8-1, was enacted to set the pay structure of each member of the Olbiil Era Kelulau at a salary of $50,000.00 annually. In addition, RPPL No. 8-9 was enacted to increase annual salaries of the president to $90,000.00, vice president to $65,000.00, and ministers to $50,000.00 respectively. These are the only salary adjustments addressed

Ironically, the president has not lived up to his billing as a legendary top notch lawyer cultivated during his time in private practice. As president, many of his legal decisions have been met with disappointment in the court of law. He has lost virtually each and every one of them.

His administration has lost cases involving individuals who held top positions within the government system. The cases that come to mind are employment status for Ricardo Bausoch of the Tax Office and Ellender Ngirameketii of the Division of Marine Law.

He lost the $25 alien registration fee class action lawsuit brought by foreign laborers. He also failed to win the case directed against Sen. Raynold Oilouch, for in essence, holding two government employments and getting paid by public funds as a senator and as a legal counsel representing state governments.

President Toribiong also lost two constitutional cases filed separately by Alan R. Seid, who represented himself, and the Senate minority bloc. The court ruled in Seid’s lawsuit that the declaration of the state of emergency issued as a result of the fire that destroyed Aimeliik Power Plant in November 2011 is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also ruled against the president in a challenge filed by the Senate minority bloc that the Uighur resettlement funds are public funds and subject to procurement laws of the Republic of Palau.

The president also lost to Koror State Government in the increase of the rock island and jellyfish lake fees.

Toribiong leaves office with many unresolved questions that still lingers on. Among them are his approval of the Blue Bay Petroleum foreign investment act certificate; and the still open case of the two missing Palauan police officers and the Chinese fishing vessel found poaching in Ngeruangel reef.

But whatever your predispositions are, President Toribiong during his term signed a new 15-year extension worth $250 million (including $18 million for postal service to other FAS) economic provision for the Republic of Palau.

He showed determination to connect Palau to the rest of the world through fiber optic cable, as well as to secure loan to repair Koror sewer system and construct a centralized sewer system in two residential areas in Airai. Perhaps, the project didn’t materialize, but it remains a legacy that the next president will have to measure to.

While small an amount and for only limited time, government employees received $20 dollars cost-of-living-living allowance (COLA), however, the extra income looks like it will be made permanent part of the paycheck. The appropriation of $75,000 was budgeted for those who have no means of income are actually receiving monthly financial assistance. These are his legacies in the social arena, making sure the government keeps attention on those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Perhaps what could define his presidency is making Palau a more recognizable leader in the world stage. No one has done more to raise Palau’s profile in such a short time internationally then President Toribiong. Through his speech at the UN General Assembly in September of 2009, Palau continue to reap international acclaim when it declared its waters as the world’s first ever shark sanctuary. Many countries and areas around the world followed by adopting the same shark conservation measures to protect declining population of shark.

While the issue of Uyghur resettlement has long been a fodder for conversation and basis for a court case, Toribiong’s decision to accept the 6 former Guantanamo detainees earned Palau worldwide media attention, which today continue to attract news stories in media worldwide.

Palau’s move to seek the advice of the International Court of Justice regarding the issue of trans-boundary harms has been welcomed by leading countries, organizations, legal scholars, and environmentalists in the fight against climate change. The issue further strengthened Palau’s position globally as leader in the fight against climate change.

With all of these  and more that are not mentioned, President Johnson Toribiong can be said as a person who served not for the purpose of creating his legacy, but more of wanting immediate change, and in which he didn’t ran out of time but ran out patience.

2 Comments to “Johnson Toribiong’s Presidency: A Mixed Legacy”

  1. I thought the title “president” is only bestowed upon a person who served a completed two terms of office as president rather than one who was only a president for one term of four years. However, I could be wrong. I am not implying that he does not deserves the title, but I am asking out of curiosity.

  2. Mr. Rengiil,

    Some research may find conflicting answers to your questions. Modern American media outlets often refer to former presidents as if they were still in office, such as President Bush or President Clinton. Other sources claim it is inappropriate to call anyone president if he or she is not the incumbent holder of that office. Gerald Ford, who ascended to the presidency after Nixon resigned, not only served only part of only one term but was not elected president (but as vice president) but he was still thereafter known as “President Ford”, at least by mainstream media. However, the inaugural ceremony committee in 2009 (at the installation of President Toribiong) addressed former president Kuniwo Nakamura as: “Mr. Kuniwo Nakamura, Former President of the Republic of Palau.” Some Washington, D.C.-based international relations and political etiquette know-it-alls claim that would be the correct manner of reference. So it seems President Toribiong would be fine with either “President Toribiong” or “Mr. Toribiong.”

    But all that, in my opinion, is irrelevant. President Toribiong does leave a mixed legacy. Although I strongly disagree with his abrupt and often questionable manner of leadership, he does challenge all Palauans to accept the fact that we need real economic solutions to improve our people’s standard of living. Supertyphoon Bopha clearly shows we have not come remotely close to the economic prosperity we dream of. Our infrastructure is outdated and precarious at best and leaves us at the mercy of nature. Our economy is highly dependent on international circumstances far beyond our control and our seemingly growing dependence on foreign aid is no promising indicator of a better tomorrow.

    The impatience and urgency of President Toribiong serves as a lesson for all of as, especially our leaders, for more than a few reasons, most important of which is that we need to FINALLY do the real work of educating our young and changing our mindsets from working for the government to working for ourselves and our own families. The next chapter in our nation’ history must be one of maturity and having learned the hard lessons of a misspent youth.

    Tommy Remengesau SHOULD know that better than anyone else. God works in mysterious ways. Perhaps Supertyphoon Bopha was a wake-up call to remind all of us, citizens and presidents and former presidents: the old formula didn’t work and we need a change.

    Merry Christmas and may the New Year really be one.

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