The battle for political control is not yet resolved, but what is clear is this is the dawn of a new chapter for Sāmoan parliamentary democracy, writes Mata’afa Keni Lesa from Apia.
Nobody could have scripted the preliminary results. Although the signs had been ominous for the powerful Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) – who perhaps thought they were going to waltz back to power at the Maota Fono, Ti’afau – not many, if any, would have given the new kid on the block, Fa’atuatua I le Atua Sāmoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party, a fighting chance of toppling the establishment as soon as this year.
Sāmoa is now at a fascinating juncture in its political journey. There is a breeze of fresh air after Friday’s general election, although there is a lot to get through before a victor is declared. Irrespective of what becomes of the battle for political control, however, it is safe to say that what is happening in Apia is in many ways the dawning of a new chapter for Samoa’s parliamentary democracy.
We are approaching six decades since Sāmoa gained independence, and the HRPP has totally dominated politics here for more than 39 years. We live in a country where many generations have known no other government. For thousands of Sāmoans and their children, a change in government – a critical aspect of democracy and its makings – is something they have not before witnessed.
This possibility, or likelihood even, is one of the most exciting aspects of Sāmoa’s elections this time around. The mood of the nation is one of excitement, anxiousness and suspense. It is tense in some parts especially with the official count of votes and the opening of special votes getting under way at the Tuana’imato election centre this week. It is going to be a very long week for candidates, political parties and their supporters. The nation will feel the same.
That said, whatever happens from here, the preliminary results deliver a bitter defeat for the incumbent prime minister, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, and his party, after they boldly predicted that they would return to power with no fewer than 42 seats. They had a reason for their arrogance. In past general elections, Tuilaepa and his administration annihilated any opposition before them to the point where in parliament during its last sitting, 47 of 50 members belonged to the ruling party. That is an astonishing number.
It is against such a backdrop that so many people, even political commentators who are well versed with Sāmoan politics, are finding it difficult to believe the present 25-25 deadlock between the HRPP and FAST. It’s a fascinating development for what has been a one-party state for such a long time; it’s incredible how things can quickly change.
But the mood for change has been anything but an overnight development for Sāmoa. It has been a long time coming. It was not a question of whether it would happen; it was only a matter of when and how it would unfold.
To understand what would have weighed on the minds of many voters, especially people who finally had enough and voted against the HRPP last Friday, you need to go back over the years. For a small country, there was never a dull moment. We have had everything: countless scandals, tragedies ranging from a political assassination, sale of Sāmoan passports, natural and man-made disasters among others. All this was happening while the HRPP government had become extremely controlling to the point it had a hand in every area of life in Sāmoa. Goodness they even had a hand in picking the Manu Sāmoa.
Nearly 40 years in power can do many things to people. While the nation appreciated what the HRPP had done in the early years, including wonderful developments socially, economically and in terms of infrastructure, complacency set in and they became far too comfortable. With such power and control, the government behaved erratically and without care in many instances. Perhaps they felt invincible. So they changed the constitution at will. From laws that impacted on freedom of religion and freedom of expression to the denigration and demolition of Sāmoa’s traditional structure, including the role of Tama a Aiga (Sāmoa’s traditional royalty), to the judiciary, they did not appear to care. They also made a very powerful enemy in the church, including the biggest denomination in Sāmoa, the EFKS Church.
Even when more than a hundred lives were claimed by the measles crisis last year, largely due to the dismal immunisation rates which the HRPP government had been warned about, a call for a commission of inquiry was ignored and they blamed mothers and families instead.
Internally, party frictions had been obvious in the HRPP. Last year, Tuilaepa’s former deputy, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, resigned in opposing the judiciary laws. Today she is the leader of FAST, and on the brink of achieving the history-making feat of becoming prime minister. She joined forces with former cabinet minister and speaker of parliament La’auli Leuatea Schmidt and Leatinuu Wayne Fong, who were unceremoniously dumped by the HRPP for questioning the status quo.
An independent MP in Tuala Ponifasio has emerged as the kingmaker. The lawyer and businessman challenged parliament and the government in court last year over their election eligibility laws and won. It was an embarrassing defeat for the government. Tuala has been trying to get into parliament for at least 15 years, finally succeeding and now holds perhaps the most powerful card in Sāmoan politics today.
Ironically he is representing Saleaula and other villages, and their faalupega (honorifics) among others, is that of the pule (authority). The very authority that the HRPP so badly disrespected when they passed an electoral amendment law which in effect removed Saleaula’s seat from parliament and enraged the big island of Savai’i, which has become a FAST stronghold. This law also saw the sacking of the man behind FAST, Laauli, from the HRPP, and from there started a chain of events continuing to this day that could cost the HRPP in more ways that they could have ever imagined.
But this battle is far from the finish. Since Friday, prime minister Tuilaepa and the HRPP have been camping at Petesa where they have been hatching a plan. What that is, only time will tell.
Mata’afa Keni Lesa is an award-winning Sāmoan journalist and the former editor of the Sāmoa Observer News Group.