Unlikely kingmaker seeks changed politics
After 15 years of trying and failing, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio has secured his passage to Parliament, but also found himself as perhaps the most pivotal figure in Friday’s elections.
Preliminary election results showing dead-heat between the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) and the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) political party. Each has an estimated 25 seats in Parliament.
With Parliament composed of 51 seats, that still leaves Tuala, the independent winner of Gagaemauga No. 1, as the Member-elect whose support could determine the course of the next five years of Samoan politics.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Samoan at his house in Saleaula, Tuala said he was in no rush to make any decisions before every ballot is officially counted to see if he maintains his position as the nation's 'kingmaker'. He admits he has yet given little thought to potentially determining the balance of power over the next five years. But he says his top priorities include effecting change - not in terms of policy, but the very nature of national politics itself.
That means safeguards against corruption; raising up standards of Parliamentary behaviour and attracting new people and ideas to Samoan democracy.
Ultimately the newly-elected M.P. said he will not be swayed by either party’s policy manifestos and will instead prioritise the advice of village elders from across his electorate.
But that has stopped the major parties from trying to win him over. He confirmed that he was approached soon after Friday night’s electoral figures indicated a tie that only he could break.
"I've had a lot of calls from F.A.S.T. and from the H.R.P.P., you know the persuasion and all,” he said.
He declined to outline what, if any, offers or concessions had been offered to him to secure his support to form a Government in the Legislative Assembly.
"I will refrain from commenting on that side of things," Tuala said.
"I have to respect what each party is working on and I am sure they are still thinking of what to do. But I won't comment on that.
Tuala says he is in no hurry to announce an intention to break any political deadlock until the intense atmosphere of political campaigning fades so that he can consider his options next week.
"Tonight (Saturday) we are saying thank you to the constituency, especially those who have helped with the campaign," he said.
“Sunday is church, then Monday I guess that's when the process of considering where to, will start."
He is prepared to wait for the final count of all ballots to be concluded; a process that starts next week.
"It's only the early stages yet, but we really need to factor in a lot, take a lot into account and consider the tos and fros,” Tuala said.
"I haven't started that yet, I am trying to breathe in the fresh air and relax.”
When asked to explain the factors on which he will decide to lend his support, Tuala said he has a lot in mind, but he said that a new kind of politics - not policy was his top priority.
That means an end to what he says are corrupt practices and a decline in decent behaviour in Parliament.
Tuala, who is a senior lawyer, said he saw flaws in both major party’s manifestos. But he said neither party’s policy platform will be a factor in his decision making.
"I will talk to the elders of the consistency and also other people to seek their advice for me, but I am not going to be persuaded by a party,” he said.
"Basically, the H.R.P.P.'s manifesto is tautala galuega (work speaks), it's a bit up in the air.
“[As] for F.A.S.T.'s manifesto, I have some concerns, because it's easy to voice the policy, but I understand that it might not be easy to put into action.
"So I don't go by manifesto, I don't know, that's not a factor to consider.
"You know [across political] history, [politicians] have said that they will do this and they will do that, and then they go in, and do exactly what the previous Government did.
"So the change that needs to be made is not a manifesto change."
Tuala is hoping to achieve reforms of a broader kind; to the conduct of Samoa’s democracy; a process he says that has already started with a competitive election.
"The political landscape in Samoa has been revitalised just through elections,” he said.
"We have seen some of the unofficial results so far and it feels like Parliament has been cleaned out.
"There is a breath of fresh air, new blood coming in; that's the exciting part.
"So we just need to make sure that whatever step we take, we take on board this revitalisation and make sure that it is the right combination for Samoa.
"At the moment, I don't know. I have a lot in my head, but I do not know which direction we should take.
"I'm listening to both sides, I'm listening to supporters of H.R.P.P. and supporters of F.A.S.T., but I also need to talk to my constituency, then we will see."
A total of five Cabinet Ministers lost their seats after voting concluded on Friday, preliminary counting shows. (At least one, the former Minister of Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti, signaled on Friday night possibly challenging the preliminary results in court).
In addition to reviving Samoan democracy, Tuala says he will be guided by a commitment to clean politics.
"I want the next Government to be true; I don't want corruption,” he said.
"That's a big statement to make, I am not pointing fingers, but this is one factor that needs to be stamped out.
"I am not saying it's been done, but it's one thing that we need to safeguard. We just want an honest Government, but of course, you will never get one.
"My wish for a Government is a Government that will work together [...with] the opposition.
"And I want to see that happen in Parliament, and I want a Parliament where people are not blaming others and pointing fingers at others.
"I want people to fight on the issues and not personal, I am really really tired of that because it has an impact on our families, villages, and churches.
"I like what the F.A.S.T. is proposing, to bring back dignity and for our Samoan culture to be reflected in parliament.
"That's quite good, but in practice, we want to see how that is reflected in the [Parliament’s] Standing Orders and how people behave themselves.
"Of course, I have my own views which I do not want to disclose, but there are some things that I want to see changed, which is something we'll leave for Parliament.
"I also have my own opinions that I think it will help towards a new Government, and I want those to be accommodated, if this is the way I can contribute to parliament, so be it.”
Tuala says the election result - not just his pivotal role in determining the course of the next Parliament - but also the performance of F.A.S.T., had caught him by surprise.
"I did not expect the results to turn out like this," Tuala said.
"Not up to the last few weeks, just before the election, when the F.A.S.T. party was out rallying the community while Parliament was still meeting, I don't know what for.
"So I think that's when I felt that people were doing things that meant nothing while others were doing something that meant a lot to the people.
"They (F.A.S.T.) were out there speaking to the people, seeking the people's support for them.
"You know in Samoa, if you don't ask for it, you won't get it, so I really felt like F.A.S.T. asked for the support of the country, and they got it.
"So it wasn't until the last few weeks that I realised that F.A.S.T. had done something that the H.R.P.P. could not do it.
"F.A.S.T. did the talking, they have branded themselves really well and they did the walking.
"But I never thought that F.A.S.T. will come up with this kind of result, but I started suspecting that they will do well just a few weeks before the election.
"So 25-25 between H.R.P.P. and F.A.S.T.? That is amazing, no one could predict what has happened.”
Tuala confirmed that he was keen last year to contest this election under F.A.S.T.’s banner when he first declared his candidacy.
"Why didn't I join F.A.S.T.? Because they prioritised another F.A.S.T. member, they gave the ticket to the other candidate,” he said.
"I think that's how really I got to be an independent candidate.
"But now that I think of it, it was all part of God's plan, what happened happened.
"As you already know, it was not an easy journey for me, with my eligibility and all that.
"I guess it was just how it was meant to be, I have my own mind to think and judge. Because I have seen what both parties are bringing, so I thought that there should at least be an independent member with his or her own opinion, just to help balance out things.
"But I did not think it would happen like this."
Tuala won the election race for Gagaemauga No.1. with a thumping majority. He secured 624 votes, while Laufou Alofipo Manase (H.R.P.P.) was in second place with a total of 330 votes, and Va'aaoao Salumalo Alofipo (F.A.S.T.) bringing up the rear with 287 votes.
He said that he will use his position to represent his constituents as best as possible and not hold the country to ransom.
"I am not going to hold the country to it. I want to be quite honest and say, let's wait for the final count,” he said.
"Otherwise, I will be happy to remain Independent if I am not needed to make up the numbers to form the Government of the day.
"But who knows?
"I haven't even started thinking about it, to be honest.
Tuala said he was grateful to have finally secured a place in Parliament after more than a decade of trying and praised the hand of God in helping him secure his win.
"I am quite thankful that I have come through this time. It's been fifteen years in the making and finally, I made it. I guess it's all in God's timing," he said.
"I really believe that there was someone who was showing the way, and we are happy that it's all done, and that everything turned out well in the end, something that we had all hoped for.
"It's been hard work, but I feel quite relieved, I suppose, that it is done. "The campaign was carried out with a lot of hope and trust in our people, in particular the people of Lealatele (Samalaeulu, Patamea, and Mauga), believing that they will vote for their candidate, because I was the only candidate from Lealatele contesting in the election.
Tuala confessed to feeling slightly overwhelmed by his political position.
"I feel happy of course; I feel happy for my family because if we had lost, I wouldn't know what to tell the kids because they made the sacrifice as well, my wife made the sacrifice as well, our families and everyone made the sacrifice, but it has been paid off, so we are grateful,” he said.
"Any other winning candidate would say the same thing.
“For my constituency, I think what it came down to was what the individual candidate was doing. I think people voted for the candidate rather than the party.
"So I am very grateful for that. I am thankful for the results."
Tuala said he is unfazed by the possibility of a candidate filing an election petition against him.
"I am not worried. I don't think that'll happen, I mean if other candidates want to do that, so be it,” he said.
Tuala and another election candidate, Papali'i Tavita Panoa, mounted a legal challenge to parts of the Electoral Act 2019 in Court in July.
They successfully won concessions from the Government after arguing that parts of the law were unconstitutional and discriminatory in its rules about Parliament candidate’s qualifications and exemptions for monotaga (service) criteria.
In the end, Supreme Court Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren announced that the two parties had come to an agreement.
In accordance with that agreement, Justice Tafaoimalo said Tuala and Papali'i would withdraw their application and for the Government to amend parts of the Electoral Act 2019.