What is our democratic essence?

Afamasaga Toleafoa made some fine and nuanced points on these pages in the Sunday Samoan. 

These were the unanswered questions of a man who has served his country and is possessed of enough worldliness and self-belief to bare his conscience and his soul and the many questions that tap away at each. 

We would not presume to summarise that piece crudely again and encourage those who did not read it to do so (“Elections maketh not a democracy”.)

But our own conscience was twigged by a point Afamasaga made in his introduction, one is more often made than thought of deeply and which should be central in every thinking Samoan’s mind over the next fortnight.

To put it crudely, or pithily, as his title did: democracies are much more than the sum of their parts. 

Famously, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became a constitutional state under that a man seldom described as a freedom fighter Joseph Stalin.

It was under his leadership that a constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion was passed into black letter law, shortly before these concepts were violated on a scale that mankind had seldom seen before. The list of gruesome dictators who cheerfully operated within the confines of a charter or bill of rights, similarly, speaks to the same point. 

There is, therefore, as Afamasaga notes, much more to being a democracy than holding elections, citing a litany of examples of countries that have fallen by the wayside after voting autocrats into power. 

So what is it, if neither the infrastructure for nor the exercise of voting that truly determines whether a society is ruled by its people and whether it deserves that oft-claimed but seldom maintained label of a democratic nation?

For us it is an ineffable quality closer in form to spirit or essence than substance. 

Whether it is one that can even continue to be said to describe our own political system is, in our honest opinion, has already become a highly questionable proposition. 

But as the Court of Appeal heard on Friday, whatever that quality is, or if it can even be defined, Samoa’s ability to credibly lay claim to it already lies seriously injured.

And as the nation’s political crisis has wound on, we are now 100 days past the point of our last election without an installed Government, the next two weeks will be crucial to determining whether we can credibly continue to lay claim to that mantle, as we turn the chapter on our 60th year since independence.   

The seeming unending nature of the power contest to date has caused many a skeptical glance when any mention of resolution is called for. 

And that is understandable, given all the surprise twists and turns and late-night announcements and surprises that have brought us here.

But thrown up before the Court of Appeal on Friday, the highest court in the land and the leader of this country’s judicial branch, were very clear questions. 

However they are answered - and whether those answers are abided by - will make the coming fortnight one of the most momentous in this nation's modern history.

A prime issue raised in the court was the question of the authority of the Head of State.

That has become the red herring that now lies at the heart of this game of political back-and-forth.

The Head of State’s is a position imbued with considerable cultural heritage, that we cannot deny. 

But the blood that was spilt on our fecund soil was never in the name of our being governed by an unelected political appointee such as he.

It is clear that his position is closer to that of a figurehead but he - and those who stand to benefit from encouraging his myth - act as though it is closer to that of a godhead.

It is not. The Head of State’s powers to call elections are strictly circumscribed by the constitution. 

We are more than double past the time before which he was obliged to call Parliament to convene after the election - May 24.

He has been in breach of his duty to the people of Samoa. And for this breach, he has acted as if he is entitled to play an entirely free hand on what to do next. 

If we allow this breach to go unchecked and for his powers to not be expressly restricted and defined by the law in response, then we will have let something in our democratic essence die. 

It is imperative that the court as a guardian and interpreter of the constitution must direct the Parliament to convene as soon as possible - before even the 2 August deadline suggested by His Highness, if only to make the point that it is the constitution that our forefathers drafted and not this man who runs this nation. 

We hope that a ruling of this kind is forthcoming from the judiciary sooner than possible.

This is a nation of laws overseen by a Parliament; it must be convened with or without him.

Behind all of this is the question of how such a ruling might be received or how key power players such as the caretaker Prime Minister react.

They are interesting hypotheticals. But they are distinctly secondary to those of principle and nationhood. 

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