Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Samoan parliamentary democracy

The 31st of March this year saw the ruling HRPP re-elected to govern Samoa for another five year term. Since their return to power they have made a couple of decisions that have provoked criticism from a number of areas. The appointment of twenty Associate Ministers and the recently announced rise in VAGST and excise being two notable cases. These decisions are examples of actions that cause serious concern for some observers about the parliamentary process and political governance in Samoa.

Another example is the issue of electoral petitions and their resolution. Several unsucessful parliamentary candidates filed petitions claiming electoral fraud shortly after the general election. Some of these cases are still ongoing but the majority of the cases have been withdrawn, with little or no discussion as to why. An opinion piece in today's Observer's by Toleafoa Afamasaga Toleafoa touches on all of this and sheds some light on why and how these petitions are typically handled:
What we have...is a one party system, the result of a series of very unhealthy political developments in the last twenty years, two of which I want to mention here. Aspiring politicians have always been attracted to the party in power. That is where the gravy is. It also reflects the opportunistic character of Samoan politics.

And because of the length of time our present government has been at the controls of the train, it means that it has been a magnet to politicians, with terminal results for the concept of parliamentary opposition and parliamentary democracy. Everyone wants to ride the gravy train.

The other development is the way money can now buy almost anyone a seat in parliament. Take this all too familiar scenario today for example. First, candidates at election time buy the parliamentary seat from the voters with money. That is a corrupt practice according to the law. But when the law intervenes, the candidates then buy their election opponents as well. The opponents go home with a bagful of money, and the successful candidates take their seat on the gravy train.

It's a pretty grim picture of the Samoan political process, but from what little I've seen and understand, quite accurate. The HRPP currently enjoys 35 of the 49 parliamentary seats. Only 30 of those seats were won by HRPP candidates at election time. The last five seats were won by independents who immediately joined the HRPP. These people knew where the gravy was to be found. As for the electoral petitions, the fact that the majority of petitions were withdrawn before proceeding to trial seems to lend serious credibility to Toleafoa's comments.

This kind of behaviour is by no means unique to Samoa. We've seen, for example, Australian, British and American governments all take advantage of their parliamentary and political power in the pursuit of their agenda in recent years. It's a telling demonstration of the need for real plurality in democratic political systems. Viable opposition parties are needed not only to provide voters with a range of different views to consider but more importantly to provide the kind of oversight that is so sorely lacking here in Samoa (as in Australia).

For Samoa the big question is how to break the stranglehold on power enjoyed by the HRPP. I thought the SDUP did a reasonably good job during the election campaign in presenting itself as a meaningful alternative government but clearly that wasn't enough. Many, including the SDUP, think that the electoral process itself requires close scrutiny and reevaluation. The HRPP has esetablished an Electoral Commission to do just this but whether its members are interested in shaking up the system or staying comfortably on the gravy train remains to be seen.

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