An election free of corruption is the responsibility of every citizen
The deadline to file election petitions has come and gone.
While some elected members of Parliament may finally be able to give themselves a moment to relax, knowing they have moved one step closer to being sworn-in as a legislator for the next five years; it’s only just sinking in for others that they may actually lose their seats.
The two parties, Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi and Human Rights Protection Party, have been vocal in recent weeks (while mulling over their equal share of Parliamentary seats) with their plans to challenge the election results; and with ensuing developments relating to a hung parliament, independent members, Constitutional amendments and an additional member – it does not come as a surprise to find out that there are 28 petitions filed in total.
The acrimony between the two major parties has been committed to public record for several weeks, and months now.
This has provided rich fodder for speculation at every level of our community – from the power brokers on their pulpits, to our disaffected Diaspora seeking inclusion and not forgetting the international media watching with great interest, how a small island nation – the first in the Pacific to gain Independence from colonial powers – handles the toughest challenge so far to its respected democracy.
This seemingly long walk to forming our next Government has its pros and cons.
As Nanai Dr Iati Iati says in today’s front page story, “Vibrant democracy in Samoa: political expert” – we do have the system in place to reflect what the people of Samoa want. We do have a vibrant democracy and it is currently working overtime.
The fact that the battle has moved to the Supreme Court – to consider the differing interpretations to statutory law - is not something we should to be ashamed of. Why? Because we are seeing all facets of our democracy come in to play.
We held our elections for representatives in the Legislative Assembly and we’re now moving to the Judiciary, putting our trust in the Supreme Court to do their part to interpret the law and pass judgment.
But Election petitions are another ball game altogether. They have been part of our electoral process for some time; Samoa’s unique style of governance makes it necessary.
Consider that we have a western style of governance at the national level while customary rule still takes precedence at the village level.
For decades now, Samoa has been struggling to find a working hybrid of these two styles of governance. The culmination of which always ends up in the court of law – think of individual rights versus that of the village councils.
This year is no different, albeit on a grander scale as the Constitution (or rather its interpretation) is currently under scrutiny.
It would be fair to say that election petitions are almost always in relation to bribery or treating. This has kept our court system busy for several elections, as they sift through testimony and evidence, trying to identify that boundary that separates culture and tradition from unlawful behavior.
Samoa’s culture is a series of protocols guided by respect. Some might say the offer of a meal to a visitor, or gift of money to a host is part and parcel of those protocols. The lines become so much blurrier when it’s in the context of election season.
So why can’t we allow our cultural protocols, of which we are so proud and celebrated, to supersede introduced concepts of western governance?
Well, because the law says it causes unfair advantage and undue influence over voters. This is reasonable and logical. The law has also established specific time periods where cultural protocols are allowed, in relation to politics and elections. There are heavy penalties for breaking the electoral laws.
So how do we fight election corruption?
We need to instill more value in a vote than it currently carries. It’s obvious that we can’t just put out laws and hope for the best.
Perhaps when we begin to see our votes as having the same value as our land and titles, our measina, then we may do away with the need for election petitions.
Then we may get to a point where an election result is accepted as the true will of the people; without conspiracy theories, wild accusations and cowboy-style electioneering that does nothing to help Samoa grow and prosper.
Perhaps then we won’t see a person’s vote so callously traded for money, food, drink or favours.
Those who exploit the basic impulses of voters, by offering money or food or favours, do so with the absolute full knowledge that what they are doing is illegal.
And those who dangle their vote in front of candidates, looking for the best offer in exchange for their tick, are just as much to blame for the cycle of election corruption.
Everyone wants a free and fair election. It is what we deserve and what we should demand. But to make that happen, it has to be the responsibility of every citizen.
Yes we have seen a huge divergence in the preference for political parties, but the shift from one ruling party to another does not negate the existence of election corruption.
Watch the pages of our newspaper over the coming weeks as the election petitions reveal what goes on behind the scenes.