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Caretaker Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. Frank Franklin II/AP/AAP

Despite a veneer of democracy, Samoa is sliding into autocracy

The 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. Shutterstock

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.

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