Electoral law changes: The “devil” is in the details
Former District Court Judge, Lefau Harry Schuster, has a legitimate point. While the nation is in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic with the General Election fast approaching, there is a very strong case for the Government to reconsider the implementation of changes to the Electoral laws, recently made by Parliament through the passage of Electoral Bill 2020.
From where we stand, we believe it’s not just the right thing to do for the sake of a fair, free, impartial and corruption-free election; candidates and voters alike deserve time to familiarise themselves with these changes.
After all, these are monumental changes, which affect people’s fa’asinomaga (identity) and sense of belonging. The Government cannot just spring these changes on people and expect them to accept it without consequences.
Besides, what is the rush? It’s not as if the ruling Human Rights Protection Party’s (H.R.P.P.) power base is being threatened by anything? How can it be when they have all the power in the world to do anything – including sacking whoever dares to question the establishment?
It is why a number of changes introduced in the Electoral Act 2020 are both unnecessary and inappropriate. Take the point made by Lefau, who is a former Member of Parliament and an election candidate, for example.
According to Lefau, the new eligibility rules for candidates, especially in relation to the monotaga (services rendered) are "unfair" and "discriminating."
Said he: “From the outset, it’s an unfair and unreasonable law given the fact that to be qualified to be a candidate in the next election, you have to have performed monotaga in the constituency that you are running from for three years.
“Having a constituency change just last year does not give three years notice to the people wanting to run to prepare themselves so they are qualified for the upcoming election.
“This will allow candidates time to change their circumstances so they meet the three year requirements if they want to run from that constituency in next year’s elections.”
For the uninitiated, the “constituency change” Lefau is referring to was introduced when Parliament passed the 2019 Constitutional Amendment Bill.
This redefined the boundaries for the electoral constituencies, doing away with what was previously referred to as “territorial constituencies.” As part of this, some villages were removed from some constituencies and added to others which means voters were also automatically affected.
The Government has insisted that the changes are necessary to address what they describe as “geographical anomalies.”
But Lefau and others – including two election candidates – who have taken the Government to Court over the changes, disagree. They claim the changes are unfair, unconstitutional and they should not be enforced until the 2026 General Election.
“The election is next year, the requirement for monotaga is three years to qualify as a candidate,” Lefau said. “It is unfair that such a last minute change, right before election, not giving the candidates at least three years notice of this change so that they can change their circumstances to qualify for next election is again unfair and unreasonable law.”
Lefau also questioned the new electoral boundaries.
“It's unfair in that a candidate may have had a strong support from a certain part of their constituency but under the new division those voters are no longer part of their constituency,” he said. “Therefore those people who voted for this candidate the last time can no longer vote for this candidate as they are now part of a different constituency that this candidate is no longer part of. This is a sudden change, giving very little time for those to prepare for the next elections.”
We could not agree more with Lefau. The changes have not only been abruptly introduced, many of them are largely unnecessary. Besides, there has got to be a fairer process of allowing the population to understand and take ownership of these changes. And let’s not forget the notion that every election candidate deserves a fair opportunity of winning. That’s what fair elections are all about.
The Government often argues that these changes are the result of Commission of Inquiries held after every General Election. Some time last year, Prime Minister Tuilaepa in particular claimed that the changes - which have now been disputed by Lefau and others - were necessary to eliminate election corruption.
“We are trying to avoid having a corrupt election,” Tuilaepa said. “There are candidates that are from Apia who have registered people in Apia to vote in their constituency, and yet these people are not from Apia, this is what we are trying to avoid.
“We want the winners to be voted in legally not win through illegal practices. Your vote should be based on the whispering of the Holy Spirit and whom you feel you should vote for.”
Now who is Tuilaepa talking about here? Keep in mind that the H.R.P.P. has completely dominated the elections in Samoa during the past how many years? Is it not true that the coconut doesn’t fall too far from the tree?
If it’s corruption that the Government is really concerned about, the numbers in Parliament don’t lie; of 50 members, 46 are members of the ruling H.R.P.P. What do those numbers say about what has been happening all these years? And what is Tuilaepa trying to tell us?
At this point, all we are thinking of is Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, when she questioned the recent changes to electoral laws in Parliament. Fiame said the residency requirement in the new Electoral laws had implications for Samoan culture and a person’s fa’asinomaga (identity). She said this completely contradicts the Government’s recent push for Samoan customs and village rights.
But this did not sit well with Tuilaepa who said every time the Government introduces changes, “the devil acts quickly to break it…”
Fiame took exception to Prime Minister Tuialepa’s “devil” reference. She asked: “Tuilaepa, are you saying the devil is standing here, for expressing my views?”
Prime Minister Tuilaepa responded: “Any [Cabinet] Minister that does not agree with us, you have the opportunity to tender your resignation. The decision that I rule on [...] all of you Cabinet Ministers if you disagree you know what to do. I speak as a leader of this Government.”
With Lefau’s argument on the front page of the Samoa Observer yesterday, we can now understand why Fiame was so concerned she risked the ire of her boss.
The “devil” is definitely in the details. Think about it.