Court rulings an affirmation of democracy
It remains to be seen if they will put an end to the uncertainty that has reigned over our politics for more than a month, but Monday’s Supreme Court judgments have ushered in a new era for Samoa. How we respond to them will be a defining moment in our history as a democracy.
The court’s decisions, one of which caretaker, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, announced he intends to appeal, could well lead to a change in Government in the short-term and more permanently if upheld and other pending legal challenges do not go Tuilaepa's way.
But more significant than any of their political consequences is the requirement that their decisions and due process is respected.
The court’s Monday verdicts, overturned both the post-election addition of woman M.P. to the Parliament and the voiding of the 9 April elections, were a highly significant assertion of the power of democracy in Samoa.
With the original elections and the Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party’s slender majority reinstated and Parliament ordered to convene by next week, they could also have major political consequences - at least in the short term.
Ultimately it was F.A.S.T.’s unexpectedly strong showing at last month’s poll that created the conditions for the uncertainty that led up to Monday’s court cases.
The result was not only a national political shock but it exposed the way in which the decades-long rule of the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) has weighed upon so many of our institutions like gravity and shaped them.
After a party being in power for a generation the very prospect of a close election let alone a change of Government seemed to many inconceivable.
That much was shown by the ambiguous manner in which an amendment mandating an increase to the number of women M.P.s in Parliament was drafted.
The provision was invoked to appoint an additional M.P. to Parliament, effectively nullifying F.A.S.T.’s slender, one-seat victory.
The court found that decision to be unconstitutional on Monday but from the moment it was announced late last month in a hurried fashion it was apparent that it had been for reasons other than those stated.
For several years, highly questionable decisions by our Ministries and Parliament, ranging from a lack of budget transparency to flagrant rules violations have simply not been acted on when they have conflicted with the interests of the ruling party.
But the surprising results of the election created a unique stress test for the independence of many of the institutions which make up our democracy.
The political neutrality of several have been challenged from every angle since the shock results of the national poll and many have been found wanting.
But resolute in the face of political pressure and attacks on its legitimacy has been our judiciary.
The courts have been unmoved by several slurs upon its independence.
These included the egregious spreading of mere rumours by Tuilaepa Dr. that unnamed judges had met with his political opponents.
The court’s rulings on two cases of immense consequence for this country’s democracy were also against the backdrop of a ticking political clock in the form of a snap, second election scheduled to be held by week’s end.
For their steadfast resistance to power and determination to uphold their loyalty to the rule of law they have emerged from this political crisis as the jewel in Samoa’s system of Government.
But it is now up to us as a people to equal the respect that the court has shown for Samoan democracy by accepting its decision.
The pinnacle of success for any democratic country is the peaceful transfer of power.
Tuilaepa has said that he would be happy to move into opposition if the H.R.P.P. lost a second election ordered by the Head of State for 21 May.
But his statements on whether he will pay the same respect to a decision by the courts is less clear; he has made inflammatory statements about the appropriateness of two or three judges deciding the results of a national election.
In fact, the judges were merely ensuring that the will of the people as expressed on 9 April was upheld.
How they play out on the floor of Parliament next week remains to be seen but in the short-term they do not appear to bode well for Tuilaepa and the H.R.P.P.
Nonetheless, his planned date with the Court of Appeal is not the only thing in which Tuilaepa can store in hope for his political future, even if he suffers a short-term setback.
The tortuous political process set off by last month’s elections is not yet over.
With dozens of petitions and counter-petitions still to be addressed by the court, the composition of the Parliament may end up looking very different to the one-seat lead.
But the court’s decisions handed both Tuilaepa and the H.R.P.P. a setback that they have never experienced, even if it only ends up to be a fleeting one.
Tuilaepa has governed Samoa for 22 years. He has done much that is worthy of praise; Samoa has grown and developed considerably in that time. And for that and other things he deserves praise.
But whether he accepts Monday’s and the court’s final decision with grace will be a defining moment in his legacy as a Prime Minister but also of our own reputation as a democracy.
In his time in office, from sporting organisations to the fa'afafine association and everything in between, there is little in this country that has not been touched by his influence.
In that time he has also come to know the value of democratic conventions intimately.
Whether permanent or not, the ultimate measure of his time as our national leader will be how he responds to this political setback.
How he does so and whether he humbles himself before the rule of law as he does so will carry consequences that are much greater than any election.