Tuilaepa's calls for peace ring hollow

It was the deeply controversial British M.P. and poet Enoch Powell who once famously said: "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

He was pointing out the simple truth that no leader can outlast the forces of time and public opinion. 

It’s an observation that our current caretaker Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, could stand to benefit from pondering a while.  

It would be more than premature to write off Tuilaepa as a political failure at this point. 

At least five days stand between now and when Parliament convenes, a period which, as Sala Dr. George Carter notes in today’s paper, is a very long time in Samoa’s current election cycle. 

This week will also deliver a judgment on an appeal to stay the voiding of a sixth woman M.P. 's appointment to Parliament that would, if successful, temporarily at least restore Samoan politics to a state of deadlock between the two major parties. 

More broadly though, even if the convening of Parliament, to which the Head of State agreed late on Wednesday, results in Tuilaepa shifting to the unfamiliar opposition bench of Parliament it might not yet be over for his Government.

As Sala notes, the number of court petitions yet to be decided upon mean that even if vanquished, Tuilaepa’s concession of the Prime Minister’s chair could well be temporary.

“The majority that will form next week – will either [be] sustained or short-lived,” he said.

But the ferocity with which Tuilaepa has been communicating publicly since this week’s Supreme Court rulings unwound scheduled fresh national elections suggest he is fighting hard to prevent any interruption to his 22-year reign, something that he would apparently see as tantamount to complete defeat. 

And so Tuilaepa is using his years of experience as a politician, connections, legal tactics and most recently and concerningly, his rhetoric to try and secure political advantage. 

This is, of course, the way we expect political animals and happy warriors to behave.

But at some point, Tuilaepa must realise that his public statements are doing harm to both his and the nation’s reputation - and its sense of security. 

The days after an election or a political shift such as the one we have seen this week, are a time for the promotion of national unity; for leaders to act with dignity and put the greater interests of the nation above their own. After all, every Samoan should be hoping for the success of their new national Government. 

On Wednesday, Tuilaepa twice addressed the media with calls for calm that seemed disingenuous at best. 

In the morning called for peace and urged the nation to leave politicking to politicians but he undermined his message for unity by mixing it with claims that had the effect of causing public unrest.

His rival for the Prime Ministership Fiame Naomi Mataafa, accused Tuilaepa of seizing upon an incident at Vailele where 100 people gathered at the Head of State’s residence to deliver a call for calm that was actually inflaming political tensions.

But it was actually later on that, while speaking on TV3, and lashing out at the long list of groups and individuals he claimed were responsible for his political downfall that he made some truly outrageous claims. 

Tuilaepa said that “strong”, “mighty” and “astounding” groundless accusations spread on social media by rivals cost the H.R.P.P. their landslide 2016 election win in last month’s election.

But Tuilaepa is guilty here of confusing the medium and the message. Social media is merely a platform for an expression of views; it does not, on its own, generate a political movement powerful enough to unseat a Government. 

Facebook, too, a thorn in Tuilaepa’s side, was long established in 2016 when he led the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) to a landslide victory.

By the end of the day, Tuilaepa was making truly sensational and fear-mongering claims as he was accusing his opponents of inciting division in Samoa.

“They have done this over and over again, where will these baseless accusations end?,” Tuilaepa said on his TV3 programme.

“They are using the TV, newspaper, and Facebook. I get goosebumps every time I read these things, especially when they are misleading overseas families.

“Not only do they seek money, but they also make them bitter with these baseless accusations along with their announcements that once they come they will remove the Head of State and bring their own Head of State.

“This is how you incite unrest. Now again and again they have done it over and over again until the Aiga Sa Tauaana has run out of patience.”

Things became their most bizarre when the leader of H.R.P.P. claimed he had received numerous reports of an upcoming protest from “hundreds of thousands” of supporters of his party that had prompted his morning appeal for calm. 

“Not only did I do it for the Aiga Sa Tauaana, I have also been told many times that a multiple of people, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people are preparing to walk who are in support of the HRPP,” he said.

“And it is my fear that they would actually do this that prompted me to address this quickly earlier today to beseech all of Samoa to remain calm.”

Whether you believe that Tuilaepa had really received such intelligence or not - and the claims strain our credulity beyond breaking point - they had the effect of instilling public fear. He painted himself as a hero intervening to stop it but by airing the claims of potential unrest he unsettled voters.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Tuilaepa’s explosive monologue came at almost the same time that the Head of State, His Highness Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualuavi II, who had been non-committal on Tuesday had just agreed to convene Parliament; a chamber where on current numbers Tuilaepa is facing the prospect of defeat. 

It is perhaps time for the Prime Minister to face up to an uncomfortable political reality.

By acting as he did on Wednesday Tuilaepa did nothing but harm to the very cause he purported to represent: national unity. 

Many of his words were plainly designed to stoke division, not forestall it. If he has a political future this will be a morally shaky foundation indeed on which to build it. 

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