Candidate registration process demands improvement
The process of registration of both voters and candidates for next year’s forthcoming election has not been smooth.
Despite the best efforts of the Office of the Electoral Commissioner to run an outreach campaign, we saw scenes of voters registering at the last minute snaking outside registration sites and waiting for up to 17 hours.
But new reports allege that, in some corners, the candidate registration process has been beset by problems, too.
A story on the front page of Tuesday’s Samoa Observer detailed allegations that several candidates had been unable to complete their registrations due to uncooperative village authorities (“Village Mayors accused of obstructing candidates”).
All were candidates running for the country’s newest and most powerful opposition entity: Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.).
It is clear that these five candidates have not been let down by the Electoral Commission’s formal registration process, which governs our national elections.
Instead the Secretary of F.A.S.T., Va'aaoao Salu Alofipo, alleges candidates have been unable to secure necessary endorsements from village mayors (sui o le nu’u) or women representatives (sui tamaitai o le nuu).
“We are sad about this because it reflects the biases and discriminatory conduct of [people in] such positions,” he alleged.
“These are positions of the Government and they are responsible for the signing of these papers and yet they keep running away avoiding our candidates.
“We cannot find them; they just run away from the candidate whenever we try to approach them.”
Va'aaoao makes a very serious allegation here.
People being denied the right to freely stand for office - or even to have that right made more difficult- under whatever circumstance is suggestive of a fundamental problem with democracy and the right to free political association.
For his part, the Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, has said it is illegal for a village mayor to avoid signing a candidate’s election form without a valid reason.
Faimalo said “unless” a mayor had a valid reason for doing so they were obliged to endorse a candidate.
He said it was possible that a candidate who had their nomination to stand for Parliament frustrated in this fashion by a mayor without due cause could possibly have grounds to initiate a lawsuit.
One of the valid reasons that would allow a village mayor to avoid signing a candidate’s documents would be the candidate’s failure to meet their monotaga (local contribution) requirement.
Va'aaoao is adamant that none of these candidates has failed to fulfil these requirements.
It is important to note that we have not heard the other side of the story yet.
The Samoa Observer has made efforts to contact the mayors of the villages concerned. It is entirely feasible that they are refusing to endorse candidates’ nominations for legitimate reasons.
But the alternative possibility, spelt out by Va'aaoao, would be a deeply worrying indictment on the state of our democracy:
“Why are they treating us differently compared to other political parties?,” he asked.
“Are we not citizens of Samoa? What a pity. They should be giving everyone an equal opportunity. Our right to enter the general election is being suppressed.”
The truth of Va'aaoao’s interpretation remains to be seen.
But there is one thing we can definitely conclude from this allegation: that there are serious deficiencies in the process of candidate registration that must be fixed.
It cannot go unnoted that the Government spends $2.6 million a year on the nation's 256 village mayors and 200 female representatives.
By noting this we do not make any allegation that village mayors, funded by the Government, are more likely to frustrate or block opposition candidates.
But when it comes to matters of political integrity and transparency, perception is as important as reality and the bar for ethical behaviour is much higher than normal.
Given their funding link to the Government, it is incumbent that village mayors and female representatives are beyond reproach when it comes to the candidate registration.
Part of that means fulfilling an obligation to make themselves formally available to candidates within their constituencies.
No party should be able to level the serious allegation that its candidates are being avoided by mayors “running away” from their responsibility to co-sign nomination declaration.
The nature of Samoa’s political system makes it necessary that a mix of village and national politics are entwined.
It is the right of mayors to reject a candidate’s nomination - for valid reasons. But it is also a candidate’s right to have these reasons relayed to them directly.
There is a very narrow window for candidates to nominate for political office in Samoa, ending on Friday.
Establishing formal schedules and timeframes for mayors to meet and consult with candidates should be made part of mayors’ responsibility as a quid pro quo for Government funding.
That allegations like these can even be made make it clear that democracy in Samoa needs better coordination between local and national authorities.