Tyranny label brushes over fine lines of democracy

By The Editorial Board 09 June 2020, 11:50PM

Claims from recently exited M.P., La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polata'ivao, that the Prime Minister is running a one-man show and Auckland law lecturer Fuimaono Dylan Asafo, have had the ‘T’ word being thrown around to describe Samoan politics lately. 

But we think describing Samoa as a tyrannical state is an overreach. 

Tyrannical regimes are oppressive, unjust, often brought to power through rigged elections and marked by violence against dissenters: Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Un and Raul Castro.

Mentioning Tuilaepa in the same breath as these dictators does a disservice to their victims Tuilaepa both.

We do not know for sure what goes behind the closed doors of Cabinet meetings. La’auli’s claims, then, that it is dominated by the Prime Minister are hard to verify. But plenty of Prime Ministers from countries with democratic traditions such as Australia and the U.K. have, at one time or another, been accused of being led by a Prime Minister who railroads his own cabinet. 

A recent display of dissent on the floor of Parliament from Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, provoked a roar of protest from the Prime Minister. And a response from Fiame, delivered, one imagines with her head held high:

"No [I will not resign],” she said. 

“He didn't choose me; I was appointed by our party."

The recent kerfuffle over the proposed changes to the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) has tested many of the institutions that stand between Samoa and dictatorship, Siome have been found wanting. But many have stood their ground.

The judiciary opposed the changes. 

The Ombudsman, Maiava Iulai Toma, deemed the changes to the nation’s constitution unnecessary, rushed and promoted the inaccurate idea that individual and communal rights are at odds. 

The Law Society has pointed out how the changes will diminish the rule of law in Samoa. 

Even the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei, revealed that most submissions by the public to the Special Parliamentary Committee hearings in Savai’i have been mostly opposed to the changes.

Given the overhaul of the L.T.C. is a signature piece of legislation for the Government, the fact that it has been subject to so much honey criticism and support from civil society, does not bring to mind images of a totalitarian state where politics is just a pantomime. 

But should these bills pass unamended despite such criticism, questions will need to be raised. Not about whether institutions are functioning properly - but whether they are being listened to - and whether they are indeed part of a democratic system.

It is easy to see how, to an outsider looking in, Tuilaepa’s Government would appear tyrannical.

The fact that three bills that would forever change the nation’s judicial structure reached their second reading speeches in Parliament without public consultation is shocking.

The Prime Minister’s exclusion of the media from Parliament’s press gallery and Parliamentary hearings and the inclusion of announcers reading from scripts are all hallmarks of a job-democratic regime. 

Samoa’s press crackdown also enjoys immunity from the usual criticism made by members of the international community such as Australia which is too cowed to issue criticism because of the country’s geopolitical significance

The H.R.P.P.’s massive majority in the legislature, of 47 seats to 50, is yet another reflection of an undemocratic regime.

But the idiosyncrasies of Samoan democracy and its emphasis village-level contests means parties currently in power enjoy an unusual degree of influence.

This, too, is not uncommon to democracy. The so-called ‘incumbency advantage’, or the ability to promise projects in marginal seats, is alive and well in Australia, the U,K. and America. 

Even if voters are not swayed by the promises of office, the M.P.s they elect are. Constituents found this out after 12 M.P/s elected to Parliament in 2016 under opposition banners were lured to H.R.P.P.

This kind of horse-trading is unseemly but not unheard of. It happens regularly on the floor of the United States Congress as loyalties for particularly contentious bills are won with horse-trading and “earmarks: promises of funding to guarantee the passage of legislation through what is, essentially, political bribery

Few of the world’s democracies are perfect. And Samoa’’s institutions often fail at critical times. 

But the L.T.C. episode has shown most are functioning as intended; as a check on Government. 

The Attorney General’s department, which was meant to undergo thorough consultation before tendering the L.T.C. bills, is one obvious exception. 

Democratically elected Prime Ministers are also meant to expose themselves to scrutiny from independent media. Tuilaepa does not.

As recent contributions from the United Nations and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute have noted, Samoa risks its international reputation by proceeding with a recent proposal for constitutional change. 

It is easy to see how Samoa can be viewed as a dictatorship by outsiders, who do not have much time to unpick the nuances of the political system of a country of 200,000 people.

In reality, Samoa is perhaps best described as a deeply flawed democratic system, or one with undemocratic tendencies. The sheer numbers in Parliament alone make the Government’s status as a one-party state impossible to deny.

In his radio programme with state-owned broadcaster 2AP, his preferred method of communication without questions from journalists, Tuilaepa noted the people voted him and his party into Parliament.

And international observers from Australia, while noting second-hand reports of vote-buying, largely agreed, declaring his 2016 victory a “highly credible” election.

The best way for Tuilaepa to answer his critics is through his actions. Those who accuse him of running a one-man show and ignoring the Government’s many achievements could quickly be silenced with a dose of transparency. 

To have bills circulated to the public well in advance of their being tabled in Parliament; to open up the workings of his Government to the free press; to release Government communications, and not stifle debates would all be good places to start. 

Transparency is the ultimate sign of confidence. If Tuilaepa is so confident that his Government is operating democratically, then we urge him to play an open hand. It is very difficult to make accusations against a Government that does so. 

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By The Editorial Board 09 June 2020, 11:50PM

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