“Elections maketh not a democracy”

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Afamasaga M. F. Toleafoa

Last week, the American Experiment celebrated one of its less than brilliantly shining moments, the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, with that word illegitimate hanging over his orange mop of hair. 

True democracy requires that the will of the people is expressed through free and fair elections. If the process is not, then we have a Trump situation with his right to hold office questioned. We thought a rerun of what our series said after our own general elections last year was in order as we go over the process that has led to where we are today.  

How does our own government measure up on the legitimacy stakes for example? Here is what we said at the time:

“Now that the general elections 2016 are over and Parliament and Cabinet are in place and ready to govern, congratulations are in order to the new members of Parliament, to the new Cabinet Ministers and to the party of government, the HRP. These elections and results have certainly not lacked for grandiose description as commentators vie to put the event in the grandest of terms. A new era has begun. We now have a truly Samoan democracy, whatever that means, are only two of the many extravagant descriptions of what happened. After allowing for sensationalism in media reporting and self-promotion in politics, the elections were indeed a milestone in our parliamentary democracy. Samoa is well and truly a one party state now. 

The numbers speak for themselves, 47 seats for the party of government, the HRPP, to 3 for the Opposition party, Tautua. These are results normally associated with Third World states with exceedingly questionable systems of government.  Forty-seven parliamentary seats against 3 seats in a 50 seat Parliament is an abnormal situation in a functioning parliamentary democracy. And under normal conditions, it would be a clear signal of there being something very rotten in the system.  

But not so in the island state of Samoa it seems, where the results have been welcomed with celebration, with prayers and thanks giving, and with congratulations all around. The explanation by supporters of the system is that this is Samoa and this is parliamentary democracy, the Samoan way!   

Thirty years ago, we did have a vibrant two party system emerging in parliament. It was new, contentious in keeping with democracy itself. And it was subject to a level of uncertainty and instability like politics itself, where a week is said to be a very long time indeed. But, like Samoa’s new parliamentary democracy then, it also had the potential to develop and grow and mature with proper oversight and nurturing by those we entrusted with its safe keeping. Today, we celebrate its demise. It will be replaced we are told, by a manufactured form of parliamentary opposition to go with our new truly Samoan Parliament. 

Make-believe parliamentary debate and in-name only democratic institutions are not new to us. For quite a number of years now, most of our watch dog institutions have been in name only, rendered powerless and toothless by changes to the Constitution made possible by the party of government commanding the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament to make such changes. So, mock parliamentary debate will not be new at all. In fact, come to think of it, there is a whole generation of eligible voters today who have not really seen what democracy looks like in our Parliament, once the two thirds majority firewall was breached.  

Readers with long memories may recall our “Elections Maketh Not a Democracy” series which tried to trace and analyze the impact on our system of government, to our Constitution, to the electoral system and to other key institutions of government of legislative changes put into place after the party of government won and maintained a two thirds majority in Parliament. We did that because of the obvious threat to parliamentary democracy when the two thirds majority protective mechanism goes. 

And as the system’s constitutional watch dog agencies and checks on Executive power were rendered of little effect, our series did try to warn about the final outcome of this process. That outcome as we said then was accumulation of economic and political power in the party of government. These elections mark the completion of that process; Samoa’s once promising party system and essential part in parliaments monitoring role on all aspects of government is no more.

This is not written now to in the first place revisit the constitutional and legislative changes that have made possible the achievement of the one party state. As our series did before, we will also be looking at other factors that have influenced in a material way our political development under HRPP’s rule.  If our politicians are to be believed for instance, God has played a large hand in the outcome of these elections. 

Church and state separation may be an important principle of democratic government, but not so in Samoa where church and state are in the warmest of embrace.  In fact with few exceptions, most of our political aspirants openly attribute their political ambitions to a special calling from God. Some have gone further and claim their political appointment as having been a manifestation of God’s will. This is all well and good except we only have our chosen one’s fallible word to go by. The danger always with bringing God into human politics is that God can also be used, as many a crooked preacher has done, to cover up a multitude of sins. 

Samoan culture is arguably playing a bigger role in the electoral process today than before as aspects of village governance are being added on to the Electoral Act. Their impact has been telling. The governance principles of Faa-Samoa like those of other traditional societies differ fundamentally from the universal governing principles of parliamentary democracy that underpin our Constitution and modern state system.  It is understandable that we would want our culture to be reflected in the way we govern ourselves. The only problem is the inevitable clash between these two contrasting systems, and the undermining of the integrity of one by the other as highlighted by the 2001 Elections Commission of Inquiry.  We hope to examine instances where this has been the case and their contribution to the achievement of the one party state in Samoa.   

But first up and to conclude this comment today, let us take a closer look at the results and what the statistics tell us about this so called defining election.  In terms of the numbers of candidates registered by the two parties, this was a contest between HRPP’s 148 candidates, against Tautua’s 23. One can only assume here that Tautua could only muster up 23 people willing to run for the Opposition party. 

We have perfected the patronage form of government after all. But it meant among other things that Tautua did not even have enough bodies to form a government if its candidates all came in. 

And with only 23 candidates at its disposal, Tautua was also in no position to contest a total of 18 seats, more than a third of the available seats in Parliament. 

But the disparity in numbers and strength does not end there in this David and Goliath contest, because even before any vote was cast, HRPP had already “won” 4 seats, thanks to the controversial and much contested village monotaga provision in the Electoral Act passed only a few months before the polls.  Add these 4 not voted on seats to the 18 constituencies not contested by Tautua, and you have the party in government with 22 seats in the bag already before one single vote is cast. 

In other words, well before the voting began, the only question remaining was who of the HRPP 148 candidates minus the four already decided the Samoa democracy way were going to come in. 

Such was the disparity in numbers that this was in effect an HRPP versus HRPP contest with the Tautua providing a veneer of respectability. In the event, HRPP won 43 seats at the polls and 4 without any polls through the village monotaga requirement making a total of 47. Almost half of HRPP’s sitting members including 5 cabinet members lost out to mostly first time HRPP candidates.

The Tautua opposition won 2 seats, and lost 7 sitting members including that of its leader whose electorate’s dynamics had been substantially changed by legislation before the polls, a change being contested in court by disaffected constituency members. Tautua’s 2 seats turned to 3  when the maverick and quite remarkable Talatonu Vaai metamorphed as Olo Fiti Vaai from the Itu Salega i Sasae electorate after having been stripped of his former MP status for Gagaemauga No 2 by the complexities of the Electoral Act! 

As if that was not quite a feat in itself, the Independent Olo Fiti Vaai then joined the two Tautua members in the now “unofficial” Opposition instead of joining the Government as he could easily have saying “…I will not follow that trail simply because of the benefits and perks. I shall stand by my principles and follow my heart because I have all the weapons from God to do the battle” All one can say is, may his kind increase!

Supporters of the system have blamed Tautua members for the party’s demise. But rather than blame them, Tautua members should be commended for not joining the general stampede to the party of government. Rather than criticize Tautua for failing to do the impossible, questions should be asked about why the party of government in Samoa is such a magnet for aspiring politicians and fortune seekers and their constituencies. It was not always so. But it’s a trend that’s been in train now for the last three or four general elections following changes in the system.  Even Tautua members including former leaders have defected to the party of government to be richly rewarded for defecting.  

These are some of the questions our series will set out to discuss and try to answer. As already stated, we will revisit the changes made to our political system and in particular the Constitution and the electoral laws, as well as discuss the issues of culture, of religion and of money and how, for better or worse, they impact our political life. It is the least we can do given the demise of parliamentary democracy in our land.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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