EDITORIAL: By the Samoa Observer editorial board
Buoyed as he is by [Wednesday’s] court decision, Samoa’s caretaker Prime Minister has shown a character flaw weighing down upon our national politics: an inability to face up to hard truths.
Despite Tuilaepa Dr Sa’ilele Malielegaoi having just alleged the judiciary was conspiring against him, the Appellate Court ruled in favour of his argument that a minimum of six women MPs need to be appointed to meet a mandated quota in our 51-seat Parliament. We don’t expect that contradiction to be explained anytime soon.
The victory has been seized upon by supporters of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), many of whom have incorrectly concluded the decision will lead to the installation of Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuuau and a Parliament in which the opposing party cannot form government.
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Aliimalemanu herself acknowledged this very point when she told the Samoa Observer that she did not mind which woman MP ended up being elected nor which party they were from, rather she was pleased to have struck a blow for female representation.
And, like the court we applaud her for her devotion to that worthy cause.
The reason Aliimalemanu’s election was voided was because it will not be until after the Supreme Court sorts through some 28 petitions and more counter-petitions that the rule requiring six women will be applied.
There are another six petitions involving women challenging or defending an election result alone, let alone other women candidates who could be elected if byelections are called if a legal challenge to a result is upheld. The number of women elected to the 17th Parliament of Samoa could be higher than the threshold, or it could be much much lower.
Exactly what role this unforeseen constitutional mandate will figure in the final election results is entirely unknowable.
That means two things of extreme significance for the immediate political future of this nation – neither of which Tuilaepa was willing to face up to when speaking on Wednesday afternoon.
For the time being, the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party will retain its 26-25 lead over the HRPP until the election is completely finalised.
How long the courts take to settle the dozens of legal challenges before them will likely be a matter of weeks, not months.
Tuilaepa is increasingly being less seen as a strongman who can be depended upon to steer Samoa through choppy waters as an immovable object with whom much of the political deadlock originated.
Until that time, they notionally — depending, of course — on the outcome of a legal case about the validity of the party’s swearing in, the opponents should notionally have some political breathing room to establish government.
But speaking on Wednesday, Tuilaepa sounded like a man who had not familiarised himself with even the most elementary aspects of the judgment.
He asserted the decision cemented Aliimalemanu’s election and a 26-26 tie between FAST and the HRPP and his rightful place and the ongoing future “custodian” of government in Samoa.
No person with basic literacy skills could have reached either of these conclusions after reading what the court had to say in a succinct and articulate 12-page judgment.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the leader of FAST, took a different and more reasonable view of the judgment, which, as it was, a victory in principle for the HRPP but one with few practical consequences for Samoa’s immediate future.
FAST, she said, had the numbers in Parliament for now and was ready to proceed to transition to a new government, just as previous Parliaments have sat while petitions are in progress.
That puts the two leaders on a collision course that cannot spell good outcomes for this nation.
But the decision also casts in stark relief the fact that the caretaker Prime Minister has shown himself at his most arrogant during a week when he should have learned about humility.
For so many years, Tuilaepa’s tendency toward over-the-top statements have merged with his public-political persona. But it is only in recent weeks as he has begun to feel his power ebb in the wake of an election defeat that we have seen the true depth of the caretaker Prime Minister’s unrelenting self-regard.
He dared to allege only a little more than a week ago that there was a conspiracy against him being cooked up by the nation’s judiciary after his party lost four court battles in a row while trying to use the courts to prevent a new government forming.
Tuilaepa then sought to assume for himself a merged role of judge, jury and Prime Minister by condemning FAST for holding an improvised swearing-in ceremony in order to uphold the constitution.
“I am well versed with this law because I own it; it’s mine,” he said.
Only weeks earlier he said that he was “appointed by God” to lead Samoa and that the judiciary had no authority over his appointment.
The recent decisions of the Supreme Court should have disabused him of the idea that the rule of law is something one man can own.
But the public of Samoa, in one way or another, be it by way of the ballot box or making their feelings known will prove decisive in the resolution of this seemingly endless political saga.
In this time of crisis Tuilaepa’s bombastic persona is no longer proving a political asset but rather something which grates upon the voters of Samoa, and he is losing support evidently.
He is increasingly being less seen as a strongman who can be depended upon to steer Samoa through choppy waters as an immovable object with whom much of the political deadlock originated.
The HRPP have been champing at the bit for another election to be called as a recourse to holding onto power.
But despite winning an absolute number of votes in the April election, almost every step taken by the party and its leader in the interim has done little to endear Tuilaepa to the public. If things continue as they are, the political confidence he had in April is likely to have evaporated by this month’s end.
We saw just as much at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral at Mulivai on Monday evening when he became the subject of a sermon and a general character appraisal by the Archbishop of the Catholic Church, Alapati Lui Mataeliga.
Tuilaepa, not known for welcoming differences of opinion, looked every inch a man in a furnace.
With his eyes closed and fan working overtime, he almost appeared to be hoping to deflect the Archbishop’s words.
It did not, of course.
His Grace’s sentiments are still lingering, long since his homily concluded.
The Archbishop referred to himself as Tuilaepa’s “spiritual father” and indeed he performed his role in this respect by dispensing some home truths to a man — and a nation — in need of them.
Speaking on the eve of Independence Day, His Grace noted that Samoa has had a history of oppression before; we have been colonised by Tongan, German and New Zealand forces in our recent history. Our paramount chiefs have had their natural status constrained and our people have suffered under the yoke of colonial governments which have misused their powers for personal gain.
The historical parallel was obvious.
The Archbishop lamented the current state of the nation which became the first in the Pacific to free itself from colonial rule but only after a long struggle.
“There is no peace and there is no unison and it appears as if our forefather’s shed blood for no reason,” he said.
“We are affected by [our leaders] abusing power due to high-mindedness and dictatorship.
“Without Samoa, there would be no leaders and the people should be well aware of that, the power in which is being abused by these leaders was given to them by us, the members of the public.”
Perhaps Monday’s homily dispossessed him of the conviction that he has a divine right to the Prime Minister’s chair.
It is impossible that Tuilaepa does not realise that his recent actions have sown division in this country.
The government’s recent decree that there be no public celebration of Independence Day clearly reflected a political fear of that day’s symbolism. The notional excuse provided, that large gatherings posed a risk to the public health, was undermined completely the day before when the Prime Minister addressed more than one thousand political supporters.
To have the head of your faith tell hurtful and shabby truths about your conduct must, even for a man of Tuilaepa’s bravado, be a wounding experience. For the sake of the country’s immediate future, we must hope against every indication it was also, deep down, a humbling one.
The Samoa Observer editorial of 2 June 2021. Republished with permission.
This content originally appeared on Asia Pacific Report and was authored by APR editor.