H.R.P.P.'s anniversary a reflection of Samoa's democracy

On the occasion of the 40th birthday of the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) we extend our congratulations to Samoa’s predominant political force. 

The photo on the front page of the Weekend Observer of a celebratory cake crammed with candles was a powerful symbol of the party’s longevity.

For its supporters, Friday’s anniversary was an occasion for celebration and reflection of what the party has achieved since its inception and during its time in Government. 

But for us it seems as apt a time as any to take stock of whether having had a single party party rise to a position of such immense dominance is a good thing for Samoa’s political system - and, indeed, for its voters. 

Unlike most of the world’s political parties, the H.R.P.P. seems immune to the laws of political gravity. 

In highly competitive Westminster democratic systems such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, elections are highly contested affairs; parties extending their mandate to as many as four terms in power are considered near-miraculous feats. 

But in next year’s general election, H.R.P.P. could claim its tenth consecutive election victory. 

There are, of course, other countries in which single parties have come to dominate, notably Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party which has ruled with only two slight interruptions over the past half-century; and, until its recent rout, Malaysia’s United Malay National Organisation party. 

But each of those parties also govern in a much more contested environment, one where they face up against opposition parties of a substantial enough size to criticise the Government and ask questions to keep it accountable, if not pass legislation. 

The H.R.P.P. 's current majority of 47 out of 50 seats in the legislative assembly may be testament to the party’s electioneering skill or popularity. 

But it is not testament to the health of democracy in Samoa. 

The chief virtue of Westminster democracy has always been its promotion of contests of ideas; to allow for criticism of the way Government policy is being implemented to be raised in Parliament; and to give a voice to ordinary constituents via their local representatives. 

None of these can be achieved as envisioned in a legislature where a single party looms so large and controls its levers. 

Critics of this newspaper will interpret this as evidence of bias against the H.R.P.P., or even an endorsement of an opposition party. It is not.

We simply believe that democracies function best when they are competitive; that Government policies are honed by debate and criticism; and people are best informed when the particulars of policies are debated. 

As Proverbs says: as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. The same can be said of political parties. But as it stands there is simply no significant countervailing force in Samoan electoral politics.

That is not to say that within the H.R.P.P. dominated legislature there has been a total absence of criticism. 

M.P. Sulamanaia Tauili’ili Tuivasa has asked the right questions about whether awarding a monopoly fuel supply contract to Petroleum Products Supplies Ltd. was in consumers’ best interests.

La'aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polata'ivao has, similarly, voiced opposition to proposed amendments to electoral constituencies. 

But such differences of opinions and political clashes should be a feature of daily politics in a democracy, not the exception. 

As La’auli’s case showed, the spectre of his being forced to resign for daring to challenge his party shows how entrenched party loyalty has become in Samoa and how geared our political system is against the development of opposing voices. 

M.P.s should be loyal most of all to the constituents who elected them, not the parties who sponsored them. 

It is unsurprising that the H.R.P.P. has consolidated its dominance in Samoa’s political system. Holding onto power is simply what political parties do - and they are doubtlessly very good at it.

And the tendency for Samoa’s opposition parties to emerge only in the lead-up to elections exposes them to an obvious criticism: where have you been?

That is a fair question. 

Serving in opposition is a democratic duty, one not just about competing in elections. Oppositions must shadow and criticise the Government especially during the dismal periods when they are outside of office and therefore needed most. 

Samoan democracy has been poorer for the absence of dissenting voices.

H.R.P.P.’s anniversary could have been an occasion for celebrating its role as part of a vibrant and competitive democracy, but also for celebrating a longer list of achievements. True discipline is only imposed on Governments and political parties which square off against serious opposition. 

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