Saturday, August 12, 2006

Old versus new

At times, the tensions between the traditional fa'asamoa (Samoan way) and the modern world become quite visible. The recent debate surrounding the issue of homosexuality is one example but it is within the legal sphere that this tension is most visible. The Westminster system is still new to Samoa, having only been established at the time of the creation of an independent Samoa. Unsurprisingly, forty years later, understanding and incorporating the fa'asamoa within the Westminster system is an ongoing challenge.

Shortly after the General Elections in March this year, court petitions were brought against several of the successful candidates. All the petitions alleged bribery had taken place to secure the votes of individuals, and more commonly, of entire villages. Whilst most of the petitions were withdrawn, two petitions went to trial. One has been settled already and the other is currently being heard in court.

The petition currently being heard in court, brought by Su'a Rimoni Ah Chong against Mulitalo Seali'imalietoa Siafausa Viu, has focused around the presentation of gifts by Mulitalo prior to the election. The presentations of gifts, known as an o'o, is a long standing tradition within the fa'asamoa. Individuals newly bestowed with matai titles always present an o'o to their fellow matai in their fono ale nu'u (village meeting). The presentation is often quite elaborate, with an ava ceremony and exchanges of very formal speeches.

The Electoral Act states that "the traditional presentation of 'o'o' and 'momoli' by a Member or candidate for Parliament...shall not be considered as treating or bribery...provided that the presentation is made within the period commencing with the 180th day and ending within the 90th day from the expiry of the then Parliament at five years from the date of the last preceding General Elections." The timing of the presentation is not being challenged here. The heart of Su'a's submission lies in how the term "traditional presentation" is to be legally interpreted. He alleges that as Mulitalo's presentation was not held in his own constituency, was not presented only to matai, did not include an ava ceremony nor any exchange of speeches, it could not be considered an o'o.

Is a "traditional presentation of 'o'o'" one that has an ava ceremony, formal speeches and that is only presented to matai, as Su'a claims? Furthermore, in the context of an election, can such presentations only be considered o'o if they take place within the presenter's own constituency? A legal definition of a deeply held Samoan tradition is required before these questions can be answered.

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