Thursday, March 23, 2006

The power of village politics

I wrote recently about the nature of village politics and how there is a strong community based approach to the management of all village affairs. I mentioned that given the nature of the system, there would be little room for oportunistic individual behaviour. Just this weekend we've seen an interesting example of this at work.

Samoans head to the ballot boxes at the end of the month. The election itself warrants at the very least a post of its own, so for now I'll supply only the barest of detail (sorry). Parliament has 42 seats, 40 of which represent village constituencies. Each constituency is typically comprised of several (say two or three) villages and most constituencies have a single sitting parliamentary member.

One such constituency is that of Faleata East. It is comprised of the villages of Lepea and Vaimoso. Prior to the 2001 elections, the villages came to an agreement stating that they would take turns fielding candidates to represent their constituency. Under this agreement, Faumuina Anapapa of Lepea, was elected unopposed. Anapapa was appointed to a new post in 2002, leaving his parliamentary spot vacant. Once again honouring the agreement, Vaimoso village did not field a candidate and Lepea's Lepou Petelo II replaced Anapapa.

By virtue of the standing agreement between the villages, Vaimoso expected to field its own candidate without opposition from Lepea. Both Vaimoso and Lepea residents were shocked to learn that Lepou has registered as a candidate for the upcoming elections.

According to news reports over the weekend and in Monday's Observer newspaper, the Lepea village council (their fono ale nu'u) acted swiftly to punish Lepou for his actions. Lepou and his family were told, in no uncertain terms, that they were to be banished from the village. They were to have until 4pm Monday to comply by the order.

Tuesday's Observer provided the next chapter of the story. The Land & Titles Court, responsible for mediating issues of customary land and matai title ownership amongst other things, ruled that there was nothing in Samoan legislation that specifically denied Lepou the right to stand as a candidate. This in itself was not particularly surprising I suppose. However, Lepea's response was to _decide_ to allow the Land & Titles Court ruling to stand strikes me as a fine indicator of the power (if not always absolute) at the village level.

Some colleagues at work have told me that in similar situations in the past, where a family has been banished only for the decision to be overruled, it has not been uncommon for that family's house to be burnt down and for the family to be otherwise ostracised from the community anyway. I doubt strongly that something like this might happen in the case of Lepou; the real test will be which way the members of Lepea vote come election day.

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