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Eligible voters abroad, remittance and polling

The call for Samoans living abroad being given the opportunity to vote in an upcoming General Election has resurfaced.

And it is unlikely to go away soon, as citizens continue to benefit from remittances sent by their loved ones living abroad, triggering questions on whether family members off-island should become more involved in the affairs of their community.

The former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, has become the latest public official to call for Samoans living abroad and eligible to vote, to cast ballots in next year’s General Election.

“How do you reciprocate such love?” Tui Atua asked during a press conference at his residence recently.

“Samoan people continue to show this love every day to their families and you have seen it with millions pouring in the country. 

“In my opinion, is there a reason why we cannot reciprocate this love or do we just accept the good and not return this love that can recognise our people and their service…how do you counter that love?”

The “millions” that Tui Atua makes reference to in his press conference is remittance.

Data released by the Central Bank of Samoa for the 2017-2018 financial year showed that remittance was the country’s top foreign exchange earner, recording $503.73 million tala in earnings.

Despite the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, figures released by the Samoa Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Revenue early this month show $46.3 million tala in remittances being recorded up to March this year.

The last time Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi commented on absentee voting (voting by a person who is unable to go to a polling station in person) was in August 2018, when he said in a media release that he didn’t want to create a “precedent” by allowing absentee voting, and then criticised those who used remittances as justification for Samoans living abroad to vote in a general election in Samoa.

Tuilaepa was of the view that using the remittance argument to push for absentee voting gave “false hope” and only families and not the Government benefited from remittances.

“The truth of the matter is our families here are reaping the fruits of their overseas relatives’ hard labour from their private remittances and not the Government,” he said back then. “Money transferred over is directly utilised by families for their faalavelaves, to build new homes, buy cars, pay for their day-to-day necessities and even pay for their children’s education.”

But has the Prime Minister ever asked why more citizens are relying on remittances from families abroad to pay for expenses associated with their day-to-day living? Could it be the rising cost of living and an inability to generate income for the family due to the lack of job incentives and opportunities created by the Government?

Discuss remittances with Samoans living abroad and they will talk about remittances and its connection to cultural expectations and obligations including the tautua (service). But at some point they would also want family members back home to become independent and successful and be in a position to support themselves.

Therefore, if Samoans living abroad are already playing a critical role in the day-to-day lives of families back on the island, it is only fair that they too are given the opportunity to participate in the country’s electoral process every five years.

That is, if remittance from Samoans living abroad is filling the gaps for their families here, where the Government’s service delivery mechanism is failing, then it makes sense to include them in Samoa’s universal suffrage.

Absentee voting has a number of benefits: it can increase voter turnout; is less costly for governments; and gives the voter the opportunity to make an informed decision about their candidate of choice before voting.

A policy being promulgated by the Government in recent years is for citizens living abroad who are eligible to vote to return to Samoa to cast their ballots. But this doesn’t make sense in the 21st Century, with technology at our disposal to make absentee voting a real possibility.

Tui Atua makes the point about “reciprocating such love” by enabling Samoans living abroad to vote due to their service courtesy of the remittances they send. 

But we go further and ask the Government to acknowledge these overseas-based Samoans’ interventions, in terms of assisting and enabling families to overcome service delivery shortfalls, such as in education and housing which are Government responsibilities. 

Government recognition of the value that its diaspora population can bring to the table, through their participation in the electoral process, can go a long way towards strengthening our democracy.

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