Electoral Commissioner should be resolving, not asking questions

The Electoral Commissioner is the latest person to voice his concerns about the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party’s recent financial donations to measles victims. 

“The burning questions that [Office of the Electoral Commissioner (O.E.C.)] is trying to understand is first the timing?” Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio told this newspaper. scrutiny”). 

“Why are these gift-giving practices taking place so close to the elections?”

Why, indeed? But the Commissioner’s is a position that should be taking action and providing answers, not asking questions.

The quotations were included in a front-page story carried in Monday’s election (“F.A.S.T. party measles assistance under scrutiny”). 

But we also raised similar questions in these pages over the weekend about the apparent absence of checks on the amounts and sources and identity of donations to political parties. 

Simply taking note of possible violations to be investigated at a later date is an inadequate means of ensuring campaigns are clean,. 

“You pointed out what La’auli said about it being a ‘nationwide assistance’. But there is a high chance that the recipients of these gifts and monies are registered voters in one of the 48 electoral constituencies that will go to polls in just 19 days,” Faimalo continued. 

“Chances also are that F.A.S.T. could have candidates contesting any of those elections, where the recipients are voters in.”

Any right-thinking person can see the problem of a current approach in which the Commissioner appears to be content to observe from the sidelines with the intention of pursuing breaches after the fact. 

Electoral laws in particular must be enforced quickly and while a campaign is taking place, not after. 

That’s precisely because if these alleged 'vote-buying' tactics do work and voters are swayed into voting a party into Government by them then the entire process is pointless. 

This is a classic case of closing the gate after a horse has bolted. 

Once they have their hands on the reins of power what is the logical response of any newly, and hypothetically improperly elected Government? It is unlikely to use its power to give force to an investigation.

These are extreme examples. 

We do not believe that Samoan voters can be as easily swayed to vote for one party or another by electoral gifting. Nor do we think that if there is improper behaviour happening on the electoral frontline it is limited to opposition candidates.

There have been several murmurs, none proven, about candidates making gifts to village councils the lead up to the 9 April poll.

But it may well transpire that a basket of groceries and $300 given to a grieving family will be the least worrying aspect of the 2021 campaign. 

The principle of holding free and fair elections demand even the slightest of violations be examined. 

As we know, investigations are often frustrated by ambiguous distinctions between culturally appropriate gift-giving and outright bribery. 

But elections in Samoa are meant to be free and fair. 

The public and those participating in the election deserve to have confidence that any democratic contest has been won fairly.

Why is that alleged and apparent breaches of electoral law are taking place before our eyes and cheerfully admitted to by the parties involved but our top electoral official is acting as a commentator.  

A telling example came last week when the Office of the Electoral Commissioner issued a warning to political parties about the need to have their online advertisements officially authorised.

But the order was not an edict from the Commissioner’s office. It was styled as a reminder about Facebook's own regulations on political advertising.

Facebook, it would appear, is doing more to enforce transparency in Samoan elections than anyone in Government. 

Perhaps the problem for Faimalo is the limits placed on the powers of his office by laws, or a lack of laws able to be enforced. 

He may well lack the authority to meaningfully crackdown on apparent breaches.

As he said:

“With the election being so eminent, what really is the message behind this? As you know, we are tasked statutorily to manage the elections freely, fairly and inclusively.”

But this election must surely serve as an example of the ineffectiveness of having the Commissioner in charge of overseeing national elections appearing to be utterly paralysed by neutrality.

Laws governing electoral bribery are not political. Parties who breach them should meet a swift response, in the form of a fine or a requirement to return any favours they are alleged to have dispensed. 

Making such judgments in the middle of a campaign is not easy. But that is the very nature of elections. Things happen quickly, especially as the lead-up to voting day draws nearer. 

As it stands, the leaders of our political parties seem confident in their abilities to interpret electoral laws themselves and provide assurances that they are not in breach of the rules. 

Assurances from a politician will never be good enough. It seems that too many politicians appear to be campaigning with impunity and without fear of repercussions, at least until after ballots are cast.

Only an Electoral Commissioner’s office with teeth and which is empowered to act in the moment can ensure laws are upheld. 

Without such a position what confidence can we have?

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