FORMER CNMI Chief Justice Jose S. Dela Cruz was a guest speaker Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, on the Marianas Agupa Radio Talk Show. The following were his talking points:

Our system of government

The CNMI is a part of the United States, and our people are U.S. citizens. We have a democratic system of government. And like the rest of the United States, the CNMI has a two-party system. The people choose our political leaders by voting at the general election. We have three branches of government, and each branch acts as a check on the other two branches.

The two political parties put up the candidates for public office. We expect all candidates to be capable and competent. We also expect the candidates to have realistic plans and goals for governing the CNMI and improving the local economy, as well as the livelihood and general welfare of all the people — not just the party stalwarts and supporters.

The political problem in the CNMI

Since the start of internal self- government in 1978, the two-party system has been the vehicle through which candidates for public office are fielded. For the first two decades of local self-government, the candidates were selected by consensus among the party members. There was no primary election.

After 1998, however, several individuals in a political party have decided to run for the same public office, e.g., for governor and lt. governor. So, the party decided to have a primary election to determine who will be the party candidates. But after a party primary election, however, the losing set of candidates for governor and lt. governor would usually leave the party (with their supporters and followers) and run as independents in the general election. This has been the political practice on many occasions.

Intra-party fighting between the two (and sometimes three) factions within a party are usually more heated than, say, the rivalries between the two political parties themselves. The different factions within a party usually become bitter political enemies that sometimes last for years.

So, since the start of the 21st century, there have usually been three or four sets of candidates running for the offices of governor and lt. governor. The two sets of “independent candidates” are usually offshoots of the two political parties, after they lose at the party primary election. But sometimes, a set of “independent candidates” not affiliated with any party would form and run for office at the general election. This was the case, for example, in the 2005 general election, with the establishment of a third political party. The winner among the four sets of candidates was elected by only a plurality of the votes cast, and not by a majority (i.e., at least 50% plus one) of the total votes cast. As a result, for the 2009 general election the NMI constitution was amended to require a run-off election, whenever no set of candidate receives a majority of the votes cast.

Whenever several candidates for governor and lt. governor run for office, new party coalitions are formed, and then re-formed when there is a run-off election. Then when all is said and done, the winning set of candidates and their supporters would treat the losing candidates and their supporters as if “enemies” for the next four years. This unhealthy political fallout has on many occasions bred mutual contempt and distrust between the winning group and the losing factions, who before then were party mates.

Such intra-party animosity would usually last until new coalitions with new loyalties are once again formed before the next general election. This political practice, however, is unhealthy for the people of the Commonwealth because the faction in power and their supporters would many times treat the losing candidates and their supporters as if second class citizens. The winning candidates would act as if the CNMI government belong to them and their supporters only. Such practice has bred distrust and, at times, animosity between the members of the party in power and the factions who lost at the general election.

Another unhealthy political practice that has developed in the CNMI over the past two decades is the perceived attitude on the part of government executives, who apparently think that because they are in control of the government they could do as they please with the public treasury. They sometimes act as if the public treasury is their private fiefdom. This practice has taken place with increasing frequency for some time now. It is, of course, unethical if not illegal, whenever public funds are expended without complying with applicable law. Such questionable practice is exacerbated when the majority members of the legislative branch are also from the same political party. Legislators at times would turn a blind eye on the questionable expenditure of public funds by executive officials--because they are from the same party.

When such is the case, there is usually no check by the legislative branch on the questionable expenditures made by the executive branch. To compound this problem, executive department officials entrusted with the public treasury would themselves sometimes turn a blind eye on the questionable expenditures of public funds by senior executives. Department officials in charge of the public treasury apparently fear that if they question a transaction that has been incurred by senior executives, they would be terminated from their job, for daring to question such expenditures.

The need to enforce the law

The CNMI has laws in the books regarding the various legal issues that have arisen in recent years. On many occasions, however, government executives have not been keen on adhering with applicable laws, such as the procurement rules and regulations, the law governing official government travel, the law on permissible representation allowances, and so forth. These laws were enacted or promulgated for a valid reason: the public treasury belongs to the public and public funds could only be used for a public purpose. These expenditure laws and regulations must, therefore, be followed and enforced. And if such laws fall short, are ambiguous, need to be clarified, or need to be given more teeth, then that should be done by the legislature through legislation or by the appropriate department by promulgating effective rules and regulations.

Any democratic government is only as good as the people we elect to public office or appoint to head key departmental positions. That is why the voters, when deciding whom to vote for public office, should carefully review the credentials and qualifications of those who are running for office. The voters must transcend party politics and party considerations when deciding whom to vote for and serve on our two political branches of government: the executive and the legislature. The following admonition — with respect to computers — might be useful to take into consideration: “What goes in is what comes out.” Stated differently: “What you see is what you get.”

It is also important to realize that there is a big difference between the political practice here in the islands and the political practice in the continental United States. It is due in large part to the small size of the CNMI, both in terms of population and land area, as compared to the United States. In contrast to the CNMI, the continental United States has a population of over three hundred million people, with a vast expanse of land running from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As such, only a very small fraction of the population in the United States is actually involved in national and state politics. And these are usually the political party leaders and their circle of active party followers. A very large percentage of the people in the 50 States are not involved in politics. The voters simply wait to see who the candidates of the two political parties are, and then vote accordingly in the general election. After that, there are no recriminations taken against those who voted for the losing candidates.

In the CNMI, however, literally every person is somehow involved in our grassroots politics. And almost everyone becomes very passionate and emotional about politics. Politics in the CNMI, is not like a baseball game, where the winning team shakes hands with the losing team after the game is over. Politics in the CNMI is more like a strong religious belief that party members are willing to fight and die for, figuratively speaking. People in the CNMI take politics personally and emotionally. We sometimes see brother against brother, and sister against sister, on opposing sides and who are not on speaking terms. Party supporters and followers fail to see that whoever is elected to serve in public office is supposed to serve all the people, not just the party stalwarts and their supporters.

Party leaders and supporters on both sides of the political spectrum also fail to realize that the CNMI is one people, consisting of Chamorros, Refaluwasch, statesiders and naturalized citizens who reside here. The government officials whom we elect to public office are supposed to represent all the people of the islands not just the members of the winning party. When public officials, however, act as if they are elected to serve only their political supporters, they are not carrying out their duty and obligation under the NMI constitution to serve all the people of the Commonwealth. And this point has been a fundamental shortcoming in the way our leaders have been governing the Commonwealth over the past two decades.

Both political parties and their supporters, at their core, must realize that we are only one people. The political parties are simply the mechanism through which the people are given a choice as to whom to vote as leaders of the CNMI. Each party must justify to the electorate the reason why their candidates are the best individuals to carry out the duties and responsibilities of the office they wish to serve in. Each party should realize that once the election is over, the winning candidates have an obligation to represent and serve all the people of the CNMI. The name of our government is the CNMI Government. It is not the CNMI Republican Party Government. And it is not the CNMI Democratic Party Government. It is the government of all the people of the CNMI.

So, if the CNMI is to progress and mature politically, the political parties have to realize, first and foremost, that we are one people; and that we must use all of our available resources and manpower to improve the livelihood of all the people of the CNMI.

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