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People, not parties, can revive democracy

The role of parties in Samoa’s politics has changed profoundly since independence. 

But new reforms, already passed, and some proposed, appear set to entrench their role in our political system in a way that has never been seen. 

For the first nearly 20 years of this country’s independence, ours was a party-less political landscape.

It was only after the 1979 election - which brought Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi to Parliament - that the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) was formed. It was an opposition movement begun by Va'ai Kolone in opposition to Prime Minister Tupuola Efi. 

Ahead of next April’s election, we now have a total of seven opposition parties seeking a place in Parliament after a term in which we saw almost no opposition whatsoever.

But as the veteran member of the party that changed Samoa’s politics forever, former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, noted in Sunday’s newspaper, the history of opposition parties in Samoa has been uninspiring. (“Political party landscape needs work”).

“Opposition parties haven’t been able to sustain their work for any length of time, and have quite [a] chequered history,” Fiame told the Samoa Observer.

Samoa's Parliament has now completely changed its character. 

It is dominated by a sole political party and the Prime Minister has announced his plans to make it even more dominated by parties, with plans to ban independents from running for Parliament. 

But as Fiame said there are legitimate questions to be raised about whether we have gone too far in entrenching the role of parties in our politics. 

“The question is there, is there still room for parties, can they be sustained?,” Fiame asked.

“For all intents and purposes, because H.R.P.P. has been in Government for a long time there is now a murky line between what is a party and what is just the Government of the day.”

Indeed, we do not see dividing lines between Samoa’s political parties across moral or policy gulfs as we do in other political systems. 

The new crop of political parties formed ahead of the April election are not grounded in interest groupings, ideology, or class.

But the tendency of political parties to drop their focus on ideals and become an apparatus for control of Government makes them likely to become vehicles for political stagnation. 

As Fiame herself noted, the H.R.P.P., when it first came into power, the party was a lively forum for policy ideas and debate:

“In the early days H.R.P.P. was quite robust in terms of developing the party platform, its constitution, but as time has gone on it has become very much Government centric,” she said.

In other words, the Government and party have fused as one.

Samoa is a state dominated by a single party, but its dissenters say that the party of Government is preoccupied with Government and appointments rather than debates about the future of the country. 

In the event that Tuilaepa’s plans to prohibit independents from standing for Parliament reach fruition, it is a timely moment to ask what function parties serve in Samoan politics.

We have recently written critically about the effects of amendments to the Electoral Act that would forcibly remove M.P.s for leaving parties as tilting the balance of power in favour of the Government. 

But these changes have also made Samoa a party-centric political system. Only recently have we seen the ill-effects of these changes in full. 

The Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei, confirmed the seat of an Independent M.P. will be declared vacant for the remainder of the parliamentary term if they announce their allegiance to another party. 

On the front page of Sunday’s newspaper, we saw a second M.P., independent Faumuina Wayne Fong, who could have his seat vacated.

Faumuina has registered to run in April for the Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party but he insists that he intends to serve out the remainder of this parliamentary term as an independent. 

The M.P. says the Government is behaving like a dictatorship and intends to join his parliamentary colleague, Olo Fiti Vaai, who also registered in F.A.S.T., in a legal challenge to the regulations declaring seats vacant. 

"I have no intention of leaving that seat," said Faumuina. 

"That seat belongs to the constituency. [...] I'm running for F.A.S.T. but that's next year.”

Faumuina, Olo, and any other M.P.s who change parties during this week’s candidate registration process will be excluded from the last six months of Parliament’s sitting.

The voters who elected these M.P.s could well find themselves voiceless during what appears likely to be an incredibly consequential period of politics. Items on Parliament’s agenda include receiving a report from a committee seeking public feedback on overhauling the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) and the constitution; something which will precede the bills’ progression through Parliament. 

This is an unfortunate look at what Samoan politics structured around political parties looks like. 

In her interview, Fiame said she is excited to see new parties coming into politics. 

So far, the one most likely to challenge the Government, F.A.S.T., does not seem to be cut from different ideological cloth to its competitor. 

How could it be when it is seeking to install Fiame as its leader, the woman who sat in Cabinet alongside Tuilaepa, the man whose record the party opposes so vocally. 

That is not to deny F.A.S.T. has not crafted a unique manifesto that could prove attractive to voters. 

It has been authored, after all, by another former H.R.P.P. stalwart and exile, the shrewd political operator and former Minister, La’auli Leuatea Polataivao.

These policy planks include opposition to the controversial L.T.C. bills; introducing limits on the number of terms a Prime Minister can serve, and stopping the taxation of church Ministers.

Parties may be the only way to challenge the political status quo which has reigned for four decades. Parties can collect resources, media attention and campaigning infrastructure that independents cannot.

But on the cusp of transforming Samoa into a country where parties rule all, it is worth remembering the theory of the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. 

Building on the ideas of the father of modern political philosophy, Niccolo Machiavelli, he wrote that Government was something merely swapped between political elites: the lions and the foxes, to use Machiavelli’s term. 

That power swapping is made significantly easier by a system dominated by political parties, over which leaders can easily come to exert high degrees of control. 

It seems, then, that what Samoa’s political future most needs in the long-term is not the emergence of new political parties - but new faces; men and women of principle, intelligence and patriotism drawn from outside elite circles. 

Today begins the final week of registration for next April’s general election. The time for them to step forward has arrived. 

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