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Navajo Nation president sworn in despite losing re-election

Ben Shelly will stay in office until turmoil caused by another candidate’s lack of Navajo fluency ends with new vote

The president of the Navajo Nation was sworn in Tuesday to continue as the tribe's top leader — even though he lost his re-election bid.

That's because the presidency of the largest Native American nation in the United States is in limbo over an election that hasn't been scheduled. As a result, Ben Shelly will remain president as part of a deal he struck with lawmakers until the mess gets sorted out.

Shelly's inauguration was low-key. He didn't give a speech or outline priorities for the indefinite time he and Vice President Rex Lee Jim will serve.

"We'll keep it together until somebody shows up," Shelly said in a news release.

One of Shelly's advisers, Deswood Tome, said Shelly would not seek to start any new projects.

Tribal lawmakers were sworn in during a public ceremony nearby in Fort Defiance that was broadcast live online. Speakers at the event hardly mentioned the presidential race that was thrown into turmoil before the tribe's Nov. 4 general election when candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified because of a ruling that he wasn't fluent in the Navajo language, which sparked a passionate debate on the importance of the language in public life.

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court mandated that the election be held by Jan. 31. But Shelly and lawmakers approved a do-over allowing all previous 17 primary election candidates to face off in a special election in June. The top two vote-getters would move on to the August general election, and the new president would take the oath of office in September.

Tome said Shelly wouldn't run again, considering his seventh-place finish in the primary. Shelly said Tuesday he would return to the private sector or consider running for elected office elsewhere.

It's unclear whether the election will move forward as Shelly and the lawmakers planned. Attorneys for those who challenged Deschene asked the Navajo Nation Supreme Court late Monday to reaffirm the January election date and hold the elections director and tribal lawmakers who voted for the special election in contempt of court.

Some lawmakers have disagreed with the high court's rulings, saying they have disenfranchised thousands of Navajo voters, most of whom supported Deschene.

Al Jazeera with the Associated Press

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