Overseas voting deserves fresh look

Samoa is a member of a most unusual club. Like Ireland and Lebanon we are among the few countries in the world in which people outside our countries borders outnumber the local population.

We should count ourselves fortunate for how this came to be. Unlike other countries whose populations fled war or famine it was economic opportunity that led most Samoans overseas. 

And that means they play a particularly critical role in maintaining a country in which they do not reside.

The current economic crisis reveals just how much of a role these non-resident nationals play in our economy. 

A story in Monday’s edition reveals the Government’s attitude toward recognising these contributions by giving overseas Samoans political rights is simply too dismissive (“Tuilaepa rules out overseas voting”). 

About 116,000 Samoans were registered to vote at the last general election, out of a total population of 200,000.

A 2019 study found that this number was significantly exceeded by the number of Samoans living overseas.

Its conservative estimate found approximately 420,000 Samoans live overseas. 

We don’t know what proportion of this number is of voting age but it would be a safe assumption that they significantly outnumber those on island.

The effect of giving them the right to vote would have a seismic and immediate impact on Samoan politics. But this is an issue of rights and political concerns should not factor in at all on the question of enfranchising overseas Samoans. 

As the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, said the issue has been one that regularly arises in Samoan politics - and has been dismissed by his predecessors just as he has. 

"This started from the time when [Fiame] Mata'afa [Faumuina Mulinu'u II was] Prime Minister, and it has not changed,” he said.  

“This was carried on to Tupua Tamasese Lealofi; then Tupuola Efi, Vaai Kolone; Tofilau Eti Alesana and me we all shared the same view on this and it will not happen.”

Is it any surprise, though, that a Government in power would oppose reform of the electoral system that might be likely to destabilise their grip on power?

The law will never be changed by the Government of the day as it runs completely counter to the interests of the Government of the day.

A 2014 survey found that a total of eight nations in the Pacific had implemented rules allowing their citizens living overseas to cast votes in national elections: the Cook Islands, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, the Pitcairn Islands, and Vanuatu. 

These nations join the majority of nation-states in the world, which now have enfranchised overseas passport holders to cast voters. 

As the successful examples of these nations’ national elections show, it is far from impossible to run polling stations at consulates in countries outside Samoa, thus neutralising one of Tuilaepa’s most-often repeated criticisms of the change: that it could undermine the fairness of elections in Samoa.

“For those in New Zealand, there is no assurance that you are casting the ballot, it may be a Maori, and not you. But to be absolutely sure, you must get on the plane and come to Samoa to cast your vote," Tuilaepa said. 

We respectfully disagree with the Prime Minister, especially given the amount of money the Government has ploughed into developing internet infrastructure for Samoa that enable secure internet voting.

But our Pacific neighbours have recognised the political rights of their overseas nationals for the same reason we should consider doing so: their central role in national life, even at a geographic remove. 

The argument for enfranchising Samoans is well-rehearsed but it has not lost its power. This was shown in May when the former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, made a plea to allow overseas Samoans to vote. 

“Samoan people continue to show this love every day to their families and you have seen it with millions pouring in the country,” he said. 

“Look at the numbers [remittances] and how do you counter that to recognise their service?”

“In my opinion, is there a reason why we cannot reciprocate this love or do we just accept the good and not return this love that can recognise our people and their service…how do you counter that love?

“There are many families who rely overseas for school fees and many other small things but that is the question how do we recognise that support from them over many years.”

Indeed, the pivotal role that money from overseas Samoans plays has only been further underlined by the economic crisis that has nearly shut down the other main pillar of our economy. 

COVID-19 and the closure of our borders has brought our biggest export - tourism - to a complete halt.

But remittances, the biggest source of our imports and the other plank of our economy have in fact, somehow, grown amidst this global downturn.

A July 2020 report from the Samoa Bureau of Statistics showed that the inflow of money into Samoa during that month was $54.9 million dollars.

Somehow, despite the global economic downturn, that was a growth of 2.6 per cent or $1.4 million when compared to the same month last year. 

Let’s put that figure in context. 

In April, the Government announced its economic relief package to consumers who were struggling to get by in the face of massive job losses and economic contraction.

In total, the portion of the Government’s stimulus measures targeted solely at consumers amounted to $27.5 million.

We see that in one month alone the contributions made by overseas Samoans nearly doubled that of the Government’s stimulus package.

When it comes to the national economy, it is clear that monthly contributions from overseas Samoans are holding up the sky.

In 2018 when addressing the issue of overseas voting, Tuilaepa sought to draw a distinction between remittances and Government contributions when seeking to counter the argument that overseas Samoans deserved political representation.

“Remittances are a direct cash injection to families and relatives here,” he said. 

“The truth of the matter is our families here are reaping the fruits of their overseas relatives’ hard labour from their private remittances and not the Government.”

Now that the coronavirus has brought the economic tide out we can re-examine this statement in a new light. 

Remittances are, in effect, playing a quasi-Governmental role; they are keeping families out of poverty and filling a gap that the Government cannot.

The Government of the day, including Tuilaepa’s, is much too conflicted to rule on this issue. 

But hardworking Samoans are propping up this country and having no say in the nation’s affairs and it is time to examine this issue according to the principles of the matter, not the politics. 

There are degrees of absentee voting possible. Those who have only left the country for a set amount of time, for example, could be given the vote. These technicalities are not for us to decide. 

But we call on the Government to appoint a genuinely independent committee to examine the issue of overseas voting, taking into account the change in policy across the Pacific.

It is not an issue that we can afford to be so dismissive of any longer. 

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