Election result confirms pitfalls of ‘absolute power’

The results of the 9 April General Election, which announced the entry of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) into Samoa’s political landscape at the expense of the Human Rights Protection Party, has been etched into Samoan folklore.

The nine-month-old party’s victory, which saw it amass 25 constituency seats to tie with the incumbent H.R.P.P. after the release of the official results, bucked the trend of previous general elections to surprise everyone.

The results would have shocked H.R.P.P. leader and caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, who only 15 days prior to the general election, predicted his party would return to government with a landslide victory in 45 constituency seats.

A lot has happened since then with the Office of the Electoral Commission invoking constitutional provisions relating to the women M.P. quota, to increase the numbers of the H.R.P.P. and sole Independent Member-elect Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio joining the F.A.S.T. party to see both major political parties, again, tied on 26. 

The decision of the O.E.C. to invoke Article 44(1A) of the Constitution to declare defeated H.R.P.P. candidate Ali'imalemanu Alofa Tu'uau the sixth women Member-elect, is now the subject of a Supreme Court proceeding mounted by the F.A.S.T. party, which begins its hearing next Wednesday.

Amidst these looming court battles, including election petitions which should be filed in the Supreme Court by close of business on Friday, conversations have already begun on the factors that contributed to the H.R.P.P. suffering its heaviest election defeat since its founding in 1979.

For Nanai Dr Iati Iati, a senior lecturer in the Victoria University of Wellington’s School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, he couldn’t look past the last Parliament’s passage of the Land and Titles Court Bills last December which restructured the judiciary.

The L.T.C. Bills were widely condemned locally and internationally, but Tuilaepa used his party’s dominance in the 51-seat Legislative Assembly to bulldoze through the suite of legislation with 41 H.R.P.P. Members voting for the bills. 

Only four Members voted against the legislation at that time: former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa, La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Schmidt, Olo Afoa Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Leatinuu Wayne Fong.

Four months later Fiame, who was elevated to the position of F.A.S.T. leader together with party colleagues La’auli (deputy party leader), Olo and Faumuina are basking in the overnight success of their party at the polls.

The quartet, whose performance as F.A.S.T. party members bore the brunt of criticism led by Tuilaepa in the last Parliament, could be on the cusp of forming a new government depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court proceeding or election petitions if any.

It is funny how political fortunes can change overnight. So the Victoria University academic, who is also a matai from Falelatai, could be on the money on this one.

In a story (Land and Titles Court laws dawn of deadlock: expert) published in the Thursday April 29, 2021 edition of the Samoa Observer, Nanai picked customary land rights, the matai, and the aiga (family) as the three pillars of Samoans’ universe which the H.R.P.P. promoted L.T.C. Acts desecrated.

"Anyone who knows anything about Samoan politics knows that there are three things you don't interfere with: customary land rights, the matai, and the aiga (family). 

"Those are the things you just don't touch and you do so at your peril and if you were to interfere with those three things, you better get their support, because it will go badly for anyone who touches or interferes with these things. 

"And I'm not gonna say that those three bills did what the opposition claimed will do to the matai of the aiga, I think that still needs to be resolved and still got some debates about that. 

"But I think where the H.R.P.P. fell down was there was no communication of what the impact of those bills are going to be.”

Looking back in retrospect – everything that needed to be said about the L.T.C. Bills prior to their enactment and their impact on the rule of law in Samoa and the wider implications for citizens’ human rights – had been said.

The caretaker Prime Minister and his Government over the course of 2020 refused point blank pleas from Samoa’s Supreme Court Judges, the Samoa Law Society, eminent international jurists including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Today a leading Samoan political scientist has attributed the loss of the H.R.P.P. to the last Parliament’s passage of the three L.T.C. Bills: Land and Titles Court Bill 2020, the Judicature Bill 2020, and the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020.

And Nanai is correct: the H.R.P.P. has paid the price for refusing to listen to the people and the position of the electorate is reflected in the number of voters who now see the Fiame-led F.A.S.T. party as the alternative government. 

The H.R.P.P. leadership took the people for granted and their position on the L.T.C. Bills in the lead-up to and after their enactment was dictatorial to say the least. 

Their defense of the widely criticised laws gave life to a famous phrase coined by British historian and politician Lord Acton, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So what now for Samoa’s once-dominant political party which scaled the heights of Samoan politics and pushed its weight for four decades?

Political parties that review their success and failures in the aftermath of a general election, and revisit the original intent of the manifesto that the parties’ founders used to create the party, are bound to go places.

But those that work behind-the-scenes to identify flaws in the system in a bid to hijack a democratic process won’t get far, and be left to slowly wither, unable to move with the changing times.

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