Political diversity key to democracy

The controversy over the removal of candidate and political party billboards in villages around the country in recent weeks has unearthed the dark side of a one-party state: intolerance of diverse political views and affiliations.

Some would say that this is an outcome of having a Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) dominated Legislative Assembly and Government over the last two-plus decades. 

But where does this place citizens who chose to have a different view on how the country has and should be governed over the next five years?

Don’t they have equal rights like everyone else to support and promote a political party’s election-paraphernalia including erecting billboards in their own backyard?

Sadly, political messaging in Samoa in recent weeks has become emotional and personal – rather than being objective and policy-focused – thus opening the door to the potential of conflict, between the supporters of the different parties.

And it isn’t surprising seeing Village Councils asserting their powers too in the different communities in recent times, and ruling on election-related matters such as the removal of political party billboards.

Adjunct Professor of the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa, Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea, highlighted the challenges that Samoa’s democracy now faces on the eve of another general election in the 7 February 2021 edition of the Sunday Samoan (Billboard removals undemocratic: Professor).

For the academic, he said he couldn’t look beyond the suite of Land and Titles Acts that were passed by the Legislative Assembly last December, and its politicisation of Samoa’s culture and democracy.

“I think the village feels empowered to do what they want and what they want is basically dictated by people of one political convention or another,” he told this newspaper. “Whoever has the most influence in the village will sway the village council to make a decision and from what I can tell the billboards have been removed by the position of the village councils who are aligned, mostly, with the present Government.

“I don’t think it’s democratic.”

The verdict is still out on the overall impact of the L.T.C. Acts and its long-term impact on Samoa and its democracy. 

But if the leaders of the ruling H.R.P.P. designed the new laws to boost the powers of the Village Councils during critical chapters of a democratic nation’s journey, such as a five-yearly general election, then they have done so at the expense of the people.

Leasiolagi also made a link between the actions of Village Council members and the kind of language that the Government leaders are using in public forums, such as the floor of the Parliament.

“Are they making speeches so voters can be educated about issues or are they making speeches for example that will prevent the voters from thinking individually about those issues?

“To me, the level of debate in Parliament – if you can call what is happening there debate – is certainly not educational, in terms of people’s political awareness, generally.

“It’s just sort of aimed towards one thing, which is to make people think that one particular political party which is in power is the only way to think.”

Sadly, there is truth in the N.U.S. academic’s analysis, of how politicians’ speeches have degenerated over the years.

For citizens who have grown up with a H.R.P.P. Government all their lives, there is the risk of them accepting as normal and acceptable leaders’ name-calling and ridiculing of others.

For what it is worth, if Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi cared for and respected the diverse political views and affiliations of citizens, he would have directed Village Councils on both Upolu and Savai’i to respect the right of villagers to put up billboards and promote the election-paraphernalia of parties they support.

To date we are yet to hear of the Ministry of Women Community and Social Development – which governs the conduct of Village Councils and Committees and pays their salaries – issuing such directives to ensure there is inclusivity and respect of diverse political views and affiliations in the community.

In his interview with this newspaper recently, Leasiolagi warned that how Samoa’s leaders conducted themselves is reflected in the society.

“If the political class behaves in certain ways it will be reflected in society. It’s the tone, it’s the personality issues involved.”

They say a government can be a reflection of a nation's politics, therefore, accepting diverse views and pushing for inclusivity on the eve of a general election could work in Samoa's favour.

All in all the country yearns for cool heads, maturity and respect for its citizens' politically diverse views and affiliations from its leaders. 

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