Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Samoan Politics

The candidates are in high campaign mode, the party policies have all been announced, and it's just a couple of days until Samoans choose their government for the next five years. So what does the political landscape of Samoa look like? Who is likely to govern the country?

For the last 23 years Samoa has been ruled by the Human Rights Political Party (HRPP). They appear very firmly entrenched and have broad support across the country. Led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, the party has several prominent community and business leaders as members.

The major planks in the HRPP election platform are economic growth and infrastructure development. Tuilaepa, and the Deputy PM and Finance Minister Misa Telefoni, regularly point to the sustained economic growth Samoa has enjoyed over the last few years. Further, with the help of considerable overseas aid there has been a huge push recently in infrastructure development projects. The latest cab off the ranks is the redevelopment of the Savalalo/Sogi wharf and the fish markets next to it. The times they are a changin' in Samoa, and the HRPP has positioned itself as the driver behind the wheel.

Is this enough to get the HRPP over the line? Many suspect it is, but there is a growing sense of tiredness at the continued rule of the HRPP. Le Mamea R Mualia, head of the main opposition party the Samoa Democratic United Party (SDUP), has been polling very well over the last couple of months. He has consistently polled ahead of Tuilaepa as preferred leader and the SDUP has enjoyed several poll "wins" ahead of the HRPP.

The SDUP has focused on three main areas for its campaign: health, education and governance. If elected, the SDUP would conduct a review of teachers' pay and make a strong push to provide free and compulsory primary education. This has been received quite well but it is perhaps the issue of health that resonates strongest with the Samoan people, thanks to the bitter pill of an eleven week strike by Samoa's doctors late last year.

Two major problems plague the public health system of Samoa. First, the overall cost of the public health system and how that cost should be met continues to vex government. With newer, far more expensive facilities (such as the recent kidney dialysis unit) becoming available this issue becomes ever more important. Second, as the doctors' strike illustrated, the present nominal level of payment for health services staff is a significant disincentive for health care professionals. Doctors have started to move into private health and others have moved overseas to advance their profession. Samoa cannot afford this kind of skills drain.

A more immediate challenge for the present Minister for Health is election rival Su'a Rimoni Ah Chong. Su'a, head of the Samoa Party (SP), is perhaps the most outspoken of all the party leaders. Whilst the SP and the SDUP share their concern about governance, it is Su'a who has really championed this issue ahead of all others.

Su'a is well qualified to campaign on this issue, as he was formerly the Samoa Controller and Chief Auditor. In this role, Su'a issued a report in the mid nineties that implicated a number of cabinet ministers and senior government officials for fraud and other misdemeanors. The report led to his dismissal and amendment of the Samoan Constitution.

Su'a wants to see independence brought back to many government portfolios, most notably the oversight agencies of the Audit, Electoral Commissioner and the Attorney General offices. A significant reduction in government wastage features strongly in the SP manifesto as well.

Are these issues really the ones foremost in the minds of most Samoan voters? The issues of health and education most certainly hold the interest of the voting public but other issues such as land ownership are also extremely important. There are currently two large land title claims before court and allegations made by the SDUP and SP last week have put the HRPP under scrutiny. The allegations hold that the HRPP reached an agreement with the World Bank to reform the ownership of customary land (which represents 80% of all land in Samoa) to facilitate easier commercial development. How well this sits with villages remains to be seen. My suspicion is not very well.

In spite of these concerns, it would seem that the HRPP are going to win the election. Most of the people I have spoken with about the election seem pretty convinced of that. By themselves, neither the SDUP nor the SP would ever have the numbers to form a majority government, and with the HRPP fielding twice as many candidates as the SDUP (which has fielded more than the SP), the numbers do seem to stack up in the HRPP’s favour.

Still, the SDUP in particular have done well to present themselves as a credible alternative government. They have argued their platform consistently, clearly and early. It’s a lesson the Australian opposition parties could do well to learn from.


Linds said...

This is interesting stuff.

I would be interested to hear more about the World Bank Land Reform Program - sounds like typical World Bank behaviour to me... bullying countries to smooth the path for greater private sector ownership and control of resources!

Some collegues of mine (including Em) have been looking at some of these issues in Laos where an Australian firm is implementing the land titling program sponsored by the Bank (there are few AYADS working on it too). The program is facing some real challenges, particularly in relation to land ownership of ethnic minorities for groups like the Hmong where land inheritance practices are quite different to those of the (majority) low-land Lao. They need to tread very carefully....

You should talk to John Connell about the health and migration issues - I am sure he would be interested to hear your in-country perspectives given the topic of the book he has been writing recently... Drawing some links between the migration of skilled professionals and its impact on general politics and political outcomes would be interesting too...

Look forward to an update on the election outcome! We go to the polls here too on Sunday - with only one party running the outcome is perhaps equally, if not more, inevitable than it sounds like it will be there!

jt said...

A letter in today's Observer actually sheds more light on the World Bank issue:

In 1999, the Government of Samoa signed a loan with the International Development Agency (IDA) for the Infrastructure Asset Management Program for up to 8 years in two phases.


Of particular interest...is the Risk Management component. Part (iv) of this components looks at Reform of Land Registration, information and management.

It had been discussed that it will involve the development of the Torrens System to replace the current Deed System for land registration which ownership "names" replaces the current deed system.


This, it would seem, is the heart of the matter. The statement issued by the SDUP and the Samoa party alleges that the intention of such an agreement is to promote development by allowing customary land to be used as security for mortgages and other loans. The big change would be the shift of land registration from matai titles (which are shared between families and across generations) to individual names.

Tuilaepa has responsed pretty sharply to their allegations. He's ordered the Attorney-General to initiate legal proceedings against the leaders of both parties for "deliberate misrepresentatio of the truth and grossly defamatory statements" against Government. Where this one goes next is anyone's guess.