Despite a veneer of democracy, Samoa is sliding into autocracy

Patricia A. O’Brien, Georgetown UniversityThe fragility of democracy in Samoa has been on full display in the past month. On April 9, voters used the national election to deliver a powerful rebuke to the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which has ruled their Pacific nation for four decades as a virtual one-party state.

Initially, the HRPP was locked in a dead heat (25 seats each) with the Fa’atuatua I Le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (FAST) party, with one independent candidate, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, deciding the victor.

FAST was formed in protest against the government rushing three bills into law in 2020 that fundamentally altered Samoa’s constitutional, judicial and customary frameworks. The stunning election results registered the depth of anger about this legislation and the desire for change.

But on the eve of Tuala’s announcement he would join FAST and launch a new political era, troubling events began. On April 20, Samoa’s Election Commissioner announced via social media that a new 52nd parliamentary seat had been created and signed into law by the head of state, Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi. An HRPP candidate was installed in the seat. This announcement denied FAST (headed by a former deputy prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa) its one-seat majority and victory.

On May 4, when the Supreme Court of Samoa questioned the 52nd-seat manoeuvre, the head of state (who was appointed by the government) declared the April 9 election results void and that a new snap election would be held on May 21. He also questioned the impartiality of Samoa’s highest court.

Read more:
Samoa’s stunning election result: on the verge of a new ruling party for the first time in 40 years

Caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has held that office since 1998, declared himself “shocked” by the head of state’s announcement, but thought an electoral rerun would make the people’s will more “clear”. He also asserted he was appointed to rule Samoa by the highest authority of all: God.

On May 17, the Supreme Court declared the 52nd seat unconstitutional, giving FAST back its one member majority. The Supreme Court will soon decide on the voided election too – it is unlikely to be in favour.

But the HRPP has sown the seeds for a direct confrontation between the head of state and the judiciary. The HRPP is likely to continue the push for the second election, having denounced the courts, the Samoan diaspora, Facebook, protesters and Samoa’s leading newspaper, which strongly opposes Tuilaepa’s actions.

The people of Samoa have saved democracy in their country before – they may now have to do so again.

Scepticism abounds about how orderly a rerun election will be, given the extraordinary events since April 9. Despite a veneer of democracy, Samoa is ominously facing an autocratic future.

Samoa has struggled with autocracy and democracy before. The 1920s were a tempestuous time for the nation, which was reeling from the devastation of the influenza epidemic that killed more than one in five of its people. (Due to closed borders Samoa has been almost free of COVID-19, but the economic, social and political impacts of eligible voters being unable to return home to cast ballots have been considerable.)

The 1918 pandemic aftershocks resulted in a mass civil disobedience campaign known as the Mau (stance) Movement. It laid the blame for the calamity solely at the feet of New Zealand, which took over the German colonial regime in its first action of the first world war. So intense was the public’s anger, the new administrator brought in to quell the situation likened ruling Samoa to sitting on top of a “volcano”.

One of the Mau leaders was Ta’isi O.F. Nelson. He relentlessly fought New Zealand’s autocractic rule, likening the administrator’s powers to that of a “dictator”. He was singled out by New Zealand as the “cause of all the trouble”. Ta’isi was exiled from Samoa for ten years, imprisoned and financially ruined for the peaceful, multifaceted, international campaign he led.

Samoan protests intensified especially when New Zealand attempted to alter the functioning of Samoan customs. With the endorsement of Britain and the League of Nations (Samoa was one of the league’s mandated territories from 1920), New Zealand met the peaceful protests with military force. This led to the infamous 1929 Black Saturday Massacre, which killed nine protesters including Mau leader Tupua Tamasese Lea’lofi. The ongoing Mau campaign succeeded in Samoa becoming the Pacific’s first independent nation in 1962 and its most “stable democracy”.

This history is detailed in my book, Tautai (navigator). In 2021, the history of Samoans’ passionate fight against autocratic rule should be well remembered, as there are many echoes of it in the present crisis.

Widespread anger against the three 2020 laws, attacks on censorious press and even Tuilaepa’s singling out of Ta’isi’s grandson, who was both a former prime minister and head of state, as the “mastermind” behind FAST’s campaign strategy, are some of the most apparent similiarities.

Read more:
Devastated by disease in the past, Samoa is on high alert after recent coronavirus scares

The corrosion of democracy in Samoa is part of a global trend. China’s growing influence in Samoa under Tuilaepa shadows current events. But, in the coming days, democracy’s endurance will be tested and, hopefully, saved by Samoa’s people and institutions.The Conversation

Patricia A. O’Brien, Visiting Fellow, School of History, Australian National University, and Adjunct Professor, Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Samoa’s stunning election result: on the verge of a new ruling party for the first time in 40 years

Tamasailau Suaalii Sauni, University of Auckland and Patricia A. O’Brien, Georgetown UniversitySamoan politics is on a knife edge. After the country voted in general elections on April 9, counting so far has resulted in a dead heat between the two major parties.

This is a stunning and unexpected electoral rebuke of the ruling party, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which has dominated Samoa for four decades.

What are the results so far?

Coming into the election, HRPP held 47 of the 51 seats and Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi predicted his party would win 42 of the 51 seats. It only won 25.

The nine-month-old opposition, Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, also won 25 seats, just shy of the 26 needed to form government outright.

FAST’s leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Sa’o Faapito Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, says her party will consider a coalition deal with the winner of the 51st seat, independent Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio.

Tuala has indicated he favours change. But Tuilaepa – a formidable and longstanding leader of 23 years — has not yet conceded defeat. Meanwhile, recounts and potential challenges to results will also slow a final outcome.

Why did we get this result?

The Samoan public was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with its government. This situation then quickly deteriorated when three controversial bills were passed last year, thanks to the government’s huge majority. These bills fundamentally altered the operations of the Lands and Titles Court, giving it additional powers over the bestowal of lands and titles within families and villages.

As Samoa-based lawyer Fiona Ey wrote last year, they also

undermine judicial independence and the rule of law, with significant implications for human rights.

In protest, Fiame – who had been Tuilaepa’s right-hand person — resigned as deputy prime minister in late 2020. In March, she joined FAST as its new leader.

Support for HRPP was also damaged by claims the government badly mishandled the 2019 measles epidemic.

On top of this, despite having no active COVID-19 cases in Samoa, the country is still under state of emergency restrictions. So there are increasing frustrations over continued border closures, which are straining the economy and preventing family reunifications.

But even with all these indications the government was out of favour, few predicted the weekend’s result.

Where did FAST come from?

Fiame’s move to FAST and appointment as leader was both politically astute and perfectly timed.

Fiame would give FAST what they needed to ultimately unseat the HRPP from its 40-year hold over Samoa’s governing systems. Her value was, and is, twofold. First, her chiefly and political lineage gives her significant domestic appeal. Second, her already established profile and experience on the world stage is invaluable should FAST become Samoa’s next ruling party.

Read more:
Devastated by disease in the past, Samoa is on high alert after recent coronavirus scares

FAST was formed in July 2020 in reaction to the three bills. It began employing savvy tactics, attracting notable candidates and carrying out extensive social media outreach.

Through social media, FAST was able to reach across Samoa and beyond, connecting particularly with the substantial Samoan communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the United States (many of whom donated significant amounts of money and time towards its election campaign). Due to the border closures, the large numbers of eligible voters residing outside Samoa could not return, as required, to cast ballots.

FAST’s success can be attributed to the combined leadership of Fiame and deputy leader La’auli Polataivao Leuatea Schmidt and their ability to capitalise on HRPP’s clear underestimation of the national mood, both against the three bills and for appropriate access to clear and robust policy information.

HRPP, on the other hand, relied heavily on its “business as usual” approach. The party’s underestimation of both the mood – and FAST — has cost it dearly.

What does this mean?

For Samoans, the election outcome is less about launching an attack against the prime minister and HRPP, and more about making an unequivocal point about Samoa’s commitment to protecting its two core “independence institutions”. These are the Samoan aiga (family) and the Samoan rule of law.

In voting for a non-HRPP majority, Samoa’s voters have signalled loud and clear they are prepared to step up to protect their “faasinomaga”, or their Samoan values, identity and heritage.

If the post-election negotiations go FAST’s way, Fiame is poised to be Samoa’s next prime minister. Although she would be the first woman in the position, pre-colonial Samoa has a strong tradition of national female leaders.

Read more:
Traditional skills help people on the tourism-deprived Pacific Islands survive the pandemic

A transformed political landscape energised by new leadership promises renewed approaches to the many challenges facing the nation, including climate change and economic development.

Samoa has a rich history as a pioneer of political independence in the Pacific. It’s protest movements against colonial ruler Germany and New Zealand eventually led to Samoa becoming the first independent nation in the region in 1962.

With this election, Samoa resumes its place as one of the Pacific’s most innovative homes for Indigenous self-determination and democracy.The Conversation

Tamasailau Suaalii Sauni, Associate Professor in Criminology Programme, University of Auckland and Patricia A. O’Brien, Historian, Visiting Fellow in the School of History, Australian National University and Adjunct Professor in the Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Footage of Tsunami Striking American Samoa

This footage of the tsunami striking American Samoa appeared some time ago. I thought I’d post it here for future reference. This was a tragic event in the Pacific during September 2009.



The footage below contains footage of the tsunami aftermath.