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Parliament, party affiliation woes and democracy

The registration of over 5,000 eligible voters last week and the opening of candidate nominations in Savai’i this week confirms that the 2021 General Election is upon us.

Except for the chaos last Thursday, when hundreds of people tried to force their way into the E.F.K.S. Youth Hall in Sogi to register to vote at the last minute, preparations by Office of Electoral Commission [O.E.C.] staff for next April’s polls appear to be on track.

But revelations by the Salega No.2 Member of Parliament, Olo Fiti Vaai, that his decision to run under the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi [F.A.S.T.] banner in the general election next year could have implications for him in the current parliamentary term is worrying.

In a story “Olo registers for F.A.S.T.” in the Thursday, October 15, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer, the outspoken MP confirmed switching his allegiance to the newly-formed political party and added that he is aware of the risk he is taking to align with the new party, if his colleagues in the Parliament opt to invoke Section 10 of the Electoral Act to declare his seat vacant and thus trigger a by-election.

The Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, is of the opinion that Olo is safe as the “law does not allow any by-election within six months before the election.”

"First of all, there will be no by-election," Faimalo said. "And that's because we are now within the six months period from the election.

"But the fact that Olo was an independent M.P. until he declared himself as an official candidate for F.A.S.T. the law is very clear on that and he would have to vacate his seat."

And Faimalomatumua concedes that the process of seat vacation lies with the Parliament.

"And I think they (Parliament) have their own processes to adhere to,” he said. "Our job is not to manage the members, our job is to administer the process that elects the members of Parliament.”

However, the admission by the Electoral Commissioner that the Parliament – in its wisdom and thereafter its application of the law – could declare the Salega No.2 seat vacant due to Olo submitting mandatory paperwork for the next parliamentary term points to a grey area in law that urgently needs clarity. 

From our standpoint, the law is clear in that the Salega No.2 M.P. had to comply with the requirements of the O.E.C. candidate nomination process, by advising that he is running as a F.A.S.T. candidate for the next term of the Parliament.

The Parliament declaring the seat vacant – based on O.E.C. documentation that the current M.P. had to fill in order to qualify as a candidate for the next general election – is absurd and points to abuse of process.

The interpretation on Thursday by the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei, that the decision of an Independent M.P. to file paperwork for the next general election to advise of his or her allegiance to another party – and thereby is applicable and enforceable in this current term of parliament – looks flawed and could be challenged in court.

The dilemma that Olo and potentially other Members of Parliament including Independents could face, as the 22 October deadline for candidate nominations draws closer, confirms how fluid conformity to parliamentary standing orders and protocols has become in this term of the Parliament.

We all know the story behind the futile attempt to suspend the Gagaifomauga No.3 M.P., La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao, from the Parliament in June this year and the by-election that followed after his “verbal resignation” from the House. 

It all started after he asked questions about a $300,000 price tag of a 200KVA generator for the Ministry of Prisons and was later sanctioned by a Parliamentary Committee, which recommended his suspension for “misleading Parliament.”

That decision by the Parliamentary Committee, to come out swinging against an M.P. for attempting to hold the Government to account over its use of public funding, is a blot on this term of parliament’s track record.

And having seen how the Parliament has functioned in recent years, it is fair to say the Legislature or the Parliament continues to struggle under the weight of a Human Rights Protection Party-led Government.

The lack of public consultation, the rushing of various legislation, and the deliberate use of parliamentary standing orders to stifle debate that challenged Government policies have become the norm.

Nonetheless with controversial legislation such as the Land and Titles Court [L.T.C.] Bills set to return to the House for the third reading before it rises for the election, we believe every single M.P. should be given the chance to represent their constituency at such a critical juncture in our history.

These include Members of Parliament who are currently categorised Independents, but upon filling their candidate nomination forms for the next general election, would or have opted to join a political party. 

Denying them and their constituency a vote on a set of laws that upon their enactment could change our landscape in terms of the rule of law would be morally wrong. 

We have a responsibility to ensure that the outcome is truly representative of the democracy that we are and aspire to be.

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