Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen, a Pacific Studies lecturer at Auckland University, reflects on the meaning of last week’s election results in Sāmoa, which saw the reigning HRPP — in power since 1982 and led by the longest serving prime minister in the Pacific — in a dead heat with the newly formed FAST party.
You talk Sāmoan politics, elections and political parties with other Sāmoans at your own peril.
The conversation usually starts off well, begins to wobble in the middle, but then often climaxes with one person accusing the prime minister of either being corrupt (pi’opi’o), a thief (ga’oi), or both — before the discussion descends into a polarised crescendo without a resolution.
The stakes are high for Sāmoans. We were the first Pacific Island nation to win back our full independence in 1962, and immediately faced the harsh realities of having to join a nation-state system run by powers whose imperial footprint still stretches across vast swathes of our ocean. They’d made sure our independence was contingent on our ability to model their governance systems.
One way in which nation-states are able to gain respect on the world stage is to embody a moral good represented by stable and fair governance — to demonstrate that they are good global citizens who value and defend human rights.
A robust democracy is a mark of a nation’s coming of age — alongside a healthy, mature civil society and stable governance systems.
Sāmoa of late has been described by many as the poster child for democracy and stable government in the Pacific. We have never had the same destabilising military issues that our neighbours in Fiji have faced. Nor have we had the public rioting that our kin in Tonga endured in Nuku’alofa in 2006.
We’ve had the same political party govern our isles since 1982 (before even I was born) and our current prime minister has never been out of pole position since he took over in 1998 after the death of the much loved Tofilau Eti Alesana.
Whatever your politics, there’s no doubt that this is a remarkable feat of political continuity — especially considering the fragmented and diffuse distribution of political power that exists among Sāmoa’s families and clans spread across our islands.
But this doesn’t mean that all has been well in paradise.
Democracy has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with the ideals of leadership and governance that is espoused by fa’a-Sāmoa (the Sāmoan way) in our homeland.
The Sāmoan Indigenous governance system, the fa’amatai, for example, operates very much at a local, family and village level, in regulating relationships between people, ‘āiga, villages and districts.
In this system, individuals entrust governance matters to family matai, who represent our interests in village and district affairs.
The fa’amatai system is even transnational. Misatauveve Lupematasila Associate Professor Melani Anae has spent many years researching the role that suli and matai in the diaspora play in contributing to family matters in Sāmoa while being based abroad. This goes beyond sending remittances and includes taking a meaningful part in making decisions and developing family resources.
To also be considered for parliament, one must hold a matai title. These titles are bestowed by families through a process of consensus decision-making. It’s why some of the paramount titles can go years before a successor is agreed on.
The fa’amatai system is unique to Sāmoa. And, rather nobly in my opinion, the current ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) introduced legislation last year to further elevate and strengthen the role of the fa’amatai and Sāmoan concepts of governance in our judicial system.
For many, however, the moves were made with too little caution paid to the legal problems that this could pose, especially to the jurisdiction and ability of the Supreme Court of Sāmoa to maintain its independence.
Last year, I was one of many Sāmoan academics, in Sāmoa and overseas, who signed an open letter and crafted a submission to the Sāmoan government asking them to take the bills out for a further round of consultation and to seek more expert legal opinion.
Our opinions, like those of many others, were ignored.
This was one of the key reasons (among many, it appears) that drove the current leader of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua e Tasi (FAST) Party, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the then deputy prime minister, to quit the ruling HRPP. She ultimately ran against the man she had served for many years, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi — or “Papa Stui” as he is affectionately known by many.
Fiame is the daughter of Sāmoa’s first post-independence prime minister and her mother was one of Sāmoa’s first women MPs. Her pedigree and service are undoubted among our community, but many had touted her as the successor to Papa Stui following his retirement.
Instead, we arrive at a potentially critical juncture in Sāmoa’s political trajectory, as we all come to terms with the possibility that she could become Sāmoa’s first ever woman prime minister merely months after officially joining FAST.
Arriving on the precipice of potentially momentous change, historians are likely to record a combination of factors and issues that have played a part in this election outcome. These include constitutional amendments, electoral strategy, the measles epidemic, the taxing of the churches, and an increasingly connected transnational diaspora influencing local politics.
Whatever explanation our political analysts settle on in the next few months, I hope that we dispel once and for all the myth that democracy in Sāmoa and the wider Pacific is uneventful or unsophisticated and unworthy of New Zealand attention.
To many, Sāmoan politics may look small and somewhat perplexing. But its complexity belies the stable image it projects through the lack of administration change over the past four decades.
As a diasporic Sāmoan, my investment in Sāmoan politics was born out of a closely connected transnational Sāmoan family.
Despite being raised in New Zealand, I’ve always maintained strong ties to our homeland through regular visits and cultivating important relationships and networks with friends and family there.
Over the course of my research life, I’ve spent many hours speaking with Sāmoan government officials and leaders, including our Electoral Commissioner and his team. As a result, I’ve developed an appreciation for the complexities of running any civic process on the modest resources that our homeland has.
Sāmoans value experience and are respectful of the knowledge our elders hold — more so than what we do here in New Zealand.
I think it also bears underscoring that there is a very Sāmoan way of dealing with discontent through dialogue and consensus-making. With the fa’amatai system in place, family grievances, social welfare and wellbeing are often taken care of at the family and village level.
In terms of national politics, HRPP has always relied on candidates with close-knit local networks at the village level, which meant that their strategy of placing multiple candidates in one constituency gave space for unpopular local figures to be replaced by someone else within the HRPP orbit at different elections.
This approach works well with the way decisions and leadership choices are made at a village level. It certainly helped HRPP strangle any semblance of a viable opposition, and to maintain a firm grip over nearly all of the Fale Fono (parliament).
It’s a brilliant political strategy — until it isn’t anymore.
Despite the controversy over the three bills that passed into law last year, I still picked HRPP to be returned to government as I felt it still had sufficient support to collect enough seats to govern. I thought the result would be closer than in previous elections, but HRPP seemed like a sure bet to me.
Yet, we arrive now at this dead heat, which appears destined to be settled by the courts, because FAST has indeed changed the rules of engagement.
It may be true that personal networks matter in Sāmoa and that family connections have helped to settle past elections. But this election has demonstrated that, if you understand the system well enough, you can exploit it to get what you need.
As more experienced New Zealanders will remember, First Past the Post (FPP) is about who wins the most seats and not about who wins the most votes.
FAST trails HRPP in total votes by nearly 20 percentage points. What’s clear now in the election wash-up is that FAST took advantage of the weakness of the HRPP strategy — which relies on locals choosing between HRPP candidates — by running a stronger party-based campaign, offering viable alternative single candidates in most constituencies where they ran. Far less than HRPP did anyway. And they never looked back.
This situation has taken many Sāmoans by surprise, but it is, in fact, what the system allows.
Recently I spoke to Jordan Kwan, who is an official working with Sāmoa’s Office of the Electoral Commissioner (SOEC). This is the arm of Sāmoa’s public service which is responsible for running the elections.
SOEC had to shut down its Facebook Live offering on Monday (which live-streamed the counting process for all Sāmoans) because of hateful, threatening comments made to SOEC employees online.
It’s true that you can’t really ever trust a politician. But there seems to always be floating around Sāmoan circles, in quite ominous ways, this air of distrust for our politicians and government officials.
This type of laden, misplaced, accusatory tone in commentary frequently comes from the diaspora but is inherent in many comments made by Sāmoans on-island as well.
I believe that this is a concern because it can undermine Sāmoa’s hard-fought democracy.
Stability for elected governments is only as strong as the willingness of the people to grant and continue to legitimate their right to govern, based on the perceived integrity of the electoral process.
As such, there needs to be serious thought about the potential role that civics education may play in Sāmoa. It’s something we should be doing in New Zealand, too.
But, further to that, this constant undermining of our public service and leaders in Sāmoa also misunderstands the tension between the fa’a-Sāmoa — which is based on family, ‘āiga, and collective relationships as a pathway to leadership — and the individualistic assumptions of universal suffrage embodied in democratic elections.
To teu, which is to nurture, maintain and build relationships in the fa’a-Sāmoa, is also to distribute resources among your networks, demonstrating your ability to not only lead, but also to provide — and to prove you understand the responsibility to reciprocate. But, in a democratic context, this can easily slip and slide into the blurry and opaque bribery space.
Considering this incredibly sharp tension and complexity that Sāmoa’s public service and leaders must navigate, I find it misguided and disappointing that our default is always to accuse our politicians and leaders of corruption.
To be fair, many Sāmoans, myself included have seen our share of corrupt Sāmoan church ministers in New Zealand and Sāmoa, as well as some of our dodgy politicians publicly being exposed in the past. But I refuse to use the same brush to tar all our leaders and civil servants — especially the SOEC office and their team.
So, as the legal battles ensue, I hope that this exciting and unprecedented election in Sāmoan democratic history will encourage more of our diaspora to study Sāmoan politics and democracy.
This election to me signals more than just a shift in direction. It also denotes a coming-of-age of party politics in Sāmoa and is further evidence of how our people have crafted a unique way of doing democracy that demonstrates how adaptable we are, and how committed we are to doing it our way: the Sāmoan way.
Sāmoa mo Sāmoa.
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