More Than 20 Years of Political Stability in Samoa under the Human Rights Protection Party

Asofou So’o

Table of Contents

The Constitution
Political leadership

Except for a short time in 1982 and during the time of the Coalition Government in 1986–87, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has run Samoa since 1982. Among the attributes of HRPP rule in that time has been its ability to maintain political stability in the country. This chapter argues that a combination of factors contributed to political stability during the period of HRPP rule from 1982 to the present (2006) and that the HRPP has been successful in managing these factors to its political advantage. They include the distinct manner in which the country’s constitution has made possible a blending of indigenous and introduced democratic institutions and practices: HRPP leadership style, HRPP consolidation strategies, HRPP policies, the relatively small size of the national population, and the ability of the HRPP to bring the Public Service into its political orbit, among others.

The Constitution

The Constitution of the independent state of Samoa blends selected elements of Samoa’s indigenous sociopolitical system with those of liberal democracy. The end result is a compromise of the two systems that so far has been satisfactory enough to prevent any drastic social and political upheavals in the country. For example, the inclusion of elements of Samoan custom and tradition in the Constitution has allowed the continuation of institutions and practices with which Samoans are comfortable as they form part of the Samoans’ world on a day-to-day basis. As long as Samoans feel that they are part of the system, they want to abide by it and uphold it. Moreover, the value system associated with custom and tradition has helped prevent situations of potential conflict from erupting. The inclusion of democratic institutions and practices in the constitution, on the other hand, has served two purposes. First, it provides the processes for the operation of democracy and, secondly, as long as those processes are adhered to, they become a mechanism for absorbing and diffusing potential conflict.

When the Constitution was drafted in 1960, a conscious decision was made to accommodate holders of the four highest-ranking matai (chiefly) titles, tama-a-’äiga (So’o 1996: 130). In that way the traditional respect for these titles was continued. Those four titles include Mälietoa, Tupua Tamasese, Matä’afa and Tuimaleali’ifano. Holders of the Mälietoa and the Tupua Tamasese titles became Joint Head of State for life (Constitution Art. 17). Matä’afa Fiamë Faumuinä Mulinu’ü II became the first Prime Minister of Samoa and Tuimaleali’ifano Suatipatipa was appointed the Council of Deputies, which effectively was Deputy Head of State.

There have been three situations during the HRPP rule that could have led to political instability. In each situation, however, a combination of democratic processes and the traditional respect for the Head of State, who also holds one of the four tama-a-’äiga titles, prevented an eruption into open conflict. The first was in May 1982, when the HRPP lost the prime ministership and with it the government when its leader, Va’ai Kolone, lost his seat in an election petition. The loss of Kolone’s seat brought to 23 each the number of seats held by the HRPP and the opposition parliamentary faction under Tupuola Efi. Instead of awaiting the result of the by-election to be held in late 1982, inviting the next in rank in the HRPP to take over from Kolone, or asking the HRPP to elect a replacement, the Head of State invited Efi to form a government. The result of the keenly awaited by-election gave the HRPP the one-seat majority it desperately needed to regain the government. By that time, the HRPP had elected Tofilau Eti Alesana to be its next leader (Samoa Times [ST], October 11, 1982). Instead of accepting Efi’s offer of four ministerial posts in a coalition government under him as Prime Minister, the HRPP put pressure on the Head of State to convene the next session of Parliament in which Efi’s budget was defeated (ST, December 10, 1982). The result was to bring the HRPP back to power with Alesana as Prime Minister.

The second situation came immediately after the 1985 general elections, when the HRPP had an outright majority, winning 32 of the 47 seats in Parliament. Before the 1985 general elections, the party had decided not to make a decision on its next leader until after the general elections. On February 26, 1985, the HRPP met to decide its next leader (Pacific Islands Monthly [PIM], April 1985: 7). Although four candidates were put forward, it came down to a choice between Alesana and Kolone. Although Alesana won, it was clear that Kolone had strong support in the parliamentary party. Fallout from the decision included three resignations immediately after the meeting. Le Tagaloa and his wife, ’Ai’ono Fanaafi, who had been elected to Parliament for the first time, announced they were leaving the party. According to Tagaloa, he was unhappy with the manner in which cabinet in the previous government treated caucus (ST, March 15, 1985). Tagaloa had been one of the candidates for the HRPP leadership. About the same time, Kolone also announced his resignation. He claimed that the HRPP had walked away from its founding principles and that he might never have another chance to be Prime Minister (ST, March 8, 1985).

Rumours abounded that the HRPP was breaking up and that Kolone’s supporters would follow his example (ST, March 22, 1985). By the time of the ministerial elections, however, Alesana was elected unopposed after Kolone had turned down his nomination for the prime ministership by an MP of the Epi faction (Western Samoa Hansard 1985, Vol. I: 2–3). It was not until late 1985 that rumours of a defection from the HRPP became a reality. By the time of the last session of Parliament in that year, 11 HRPP MPs had defected to form a coalition government with Efi’s 15 supporters. Alesana’s budget for 1986 was defeated in parliament by the combined force of Kolone and Efi supporters and Kolone and Efi became Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively.

The third situation arose in the 1990s during protest marches organised by the traditional representatives of Tumua and Pule and 'Äiga (TPA) against the Government. TPA encapsulates the totality of indigenous sociopolitical structures and their associated practices and processes, and value system. The origin of these protests can be traced to the introduction of the 10 per cent Value Added Goods and Services Tax (VAGST) on January 1, 1994. A misunderstanding between the government and the Price Control Board resulted in the enforcement of the new price order on the day the VAGST became effective (Observer, March 1, 1994), resulting in a 40 per cent increase in the cost of living (Observer, February 11, 1994). Protest marches continued intermittently until mid-1995. The two objectives of the protest marches were the abolition of the VAGST and the changing of the Government (Observer, March 1, 1994). The high and end point of the protest marches was when a petition allegedly signed by 133,354 supporters was submitted to the Head of State. On receiving the petition, the Head of State told the delegation that the Executive Council would meet to discuss it (Observer, March 12, 1995). On March 11, a special 14-member committee was appointed by the Government, with terms of reference that included investigation of the validity of the signatures in the petition (Observer, May 12, June 6, 1995). Its report, presented to the Government in mid-August 1995, invalidated the TPA petition. The report claimed the petition was illegal because any petition was supposed to be presented to Parliament.

In what ways have the incorporation of custom, tradition and democracy into the country’s constitution prevented these three situations from erupting into public disorder and lawlessness, and what role did the HRPP play in them? I will try to answer these questions with reference to the three situations described above. The fact that Samoa had three prime ministers in 1982 suggests instances of potential political instability given the difficulty to govern under those circumstances. For a prime minister to lose his seat in an election petition that simultaneously resulted in a change of government shocked the HRPP and the country. There were rumours that Alesana, who succeeded Kolone to the HRPP leadership and the prime ministership, had instigated the election petition that brought down his party leader (Ale 1990: 13). Some political observers reasoned that such political engineering was necessary to provide an opening for Alesana to wrest the party leadership from Kolone. It was unfortunate, therefore, that Kolone became the pawn on Alesana’s political chessboard, but such was the nature of politics. Thus there was potential instability in the HRPP organisation although this would surface only in the leadership meeting after the results of the next general elections were known.

The appointment by the Head of State of Efi to form a government immediately after Kolone had lost his seat and the prime ministership in 1982 received sharp public criticism. Some critics expressed their distaste for what the Head of State had done, suspecting that he, a tama-a-’äiga, had always preferred Efi as Prime Minister as he was the son of a former tama-a-’äiga. Why else would he appoint Efi to form a government when he did not have a mandate to govern the country? He had neither the support of the majority of Members of Parliament nor had he been elected by Parliament under the relevant constitutional provisions (ST, September 24, 1982). Nevertheless, despite these criticisms, no one was prepared to go further than publicising their views in the local newspapers or speaking their minds in Parliament. The choice of Efi to succeed Kolone was that of the Head of State, who was also a tama-a-’äiga. Traditional respect for the Head of State’s ranking in the Samoan chiefly hierarchy and the accepted legitimacy of his position as Head of State, given the fact he was also a tama-a-’äiga, helped prevent any further protest beyond public criticism in the media.

In the two situations described above, there was always the opportunity for resort to democratic processes. Kolone lost and regained his parliamentary seat having followed the due processes of democracy and the law. It was an election petition that brought down Kolone and it was a by-election that brought him back to Parliament. Whether there was any truth in the rumours that Alesana had engineered Kolone’s fall, the fact remains that Alesana was later elected by his peers to lead their political party. Alesana’s later election to the Prime Ministership was done by Parliament after the defeat in Parliament of Efi’s budget. Thus, although there was the potential for political instability in the early years of HRPP rule, respect for the Head of State, the legitimacy of his constitutional role and ranking in the chiefly system, and adherence to the due processes of law and democracy prevented serious political instability. As HRPP rule became more entrenched, it had to deal with a potential conflict situation of a different kind. This happened in 1985.

The results of the general elections on February 22, 1985, gave the HRPP 32 of the 47 seats in Parliament. It was a keenly contested election. For the first time since independence all the seats in Parliament were contested. The HRPP had decided before the general elections that it would wait until after the results were known before it chose its next leader. Although Kolone and the other leadership candidates and their respective supporters were disappointed, the democratic principle of majority decision won out in the end. Alesana, who had the HRPP’s majority vote, formed the government. However, when Kolone and his 11 supporters eventually left the HRPP to form a coalition government with Efi’s supporters, despite Alesana’s unwillingness to step down from the prime ministership, the democratic process of succession to the prime ministership as decided by Parliament again won out, thereby avoiding open conflict, which could have led to political instability.

The TPA protest marches of the 1990s were perhaps the most sensitive political situation in post-independence Samoa and could easily have led to political instability. Initiated by the Tumua political centres on Upolu Island, the organisers of the demonstration met with and obtained the support of the six Pule political centres on Savai’i Island as well as the traditional political district of Aiga-i-le-Tai. As one spokesman of the movement pointed out, the six Pule ‘didn’t have any sense of hesitation’; they had ‘been waiting for Tumua to make the move’ (Observer, February 11, 1994)). In an article that explained the developments which led to the formation of the Tumua and Pule demonstration, the Observer referred to Tumua and Pule as the ‘traditional arbitrators over national crises’ (ibid.). Another article in the same edition called on Tumua and Pule to save the country from the current crisis. In a press release on February 24, 1994, the TPA stated that the two objectives of its planned demonstration were the abolition of the VAGST and the changing of the government (Observer, March 1, 1994). In a speech on national television on February 27, 1994, the prime minister responded to the second objective by stipulating the various constitutional ways in which a government could be changed.[1] He was driving home the point that by their planned protest march, Tumua and Pule could not force an immediate change of government (Observer, March 1, 1994). An editorial had alluded to the possibility that the Head of State would most likely

declare a state of emergency exists if the protest march against the high cost of living goes ahead on 2 March as planned. He is empowered under the Constitution to do this. But only if he is satisfied ‘acting in his discretion after consultation with Cabinet’ that the ‘economic life of Western Samoa’ is threatened by an ‘internal disturbance’. (Observer, February 23, 1994)

The protest march went ahead as planned on March 2, 1994; close to 20,000 people participated. About half of them were matai (Observer, March 3, 1994). The demonstrators marched for about five miles from Vaimoso, a village on the western outskirts of the national capital Apia, towards the main government building in the centre of Apia to deliver their petition to the prime minister and his cabinet. Tumua and Pule designated the Leader of the Opposition, Tui Ätua Tupua Tamasese ’Efi, to be their spokesman and officially deliver their petition to the Government. Alesana responded that the Head of State had agreed to an Executive Council meeting on March 4 in an effort to solve the matter. Furthermore, the government was planning a further reduction in prices of items on the Price Order (Observer, March 3, 1994). Insisting that the VAGST be abolished, Tumua and Pule refused to disband until that objective was realised, and began a two-week camp in front of the government building. Responding to the prime minister’s reply to their petition, ’Efi said: ‘If you cannot see what is happening, then you must be blind. And if you cannot hear the people’s moaning, then you must be deaf’ (ibid.).

In an announcement on national radio 2AP, the Prime Minister said that after a decision of the Executive Council on March 4, the VAGST would remain unchanged. Instead, duties on all basic commodities would be reduced. The details would be announced officially in Parliament when it met on March 15 (Observer, March 6, 1994). With the government prepared to compromise, a solution to the demonstrators’ demands seemed imminent. The TPA leadership then sent a second delegation to the Head of State asking him to hold a referendum to ascertain the public’s views on how the cost of living was affecting them (Observer, March 9, 1994). When Parliament convened on March 15, 1994, the Minister of Finance, in his 1993–94 budget, announced the 32 basic commodities on which tax would be reduced. The tax reduction ranged from total abolition to a 50 per cent reduction (Observer, March 16, 1994). On announcement of the tax reductions, the demonstrators, who had stayed on the government premises since March 2, decided to disband. However, the TPA leadership decided to keep up the pressure to have the VAGST abolished on all goods.

Another TPA delegation was sent to the Head of State in August 1994 asking him to abolish the VAGST and to acknowledge the Chief Auditor’s report, in which, among other things, the Chief Auditor ‘gave detailed instances of wide-scale corruption and implicated a number of ministers and government officials’ (Observer, January 13, 1995).[2] The Head of State asked the delegation to give him a written petition and an indication of the number of people who supported it (Observer, September 13, 1994). A signed petition was presented on March 11, 1995, by a TPA delegation, immediately after another public march in which about 30,000 people participated. A total of 133,354 people were claimed to have signed the petition. Of these, 122,954 were Samoans residing in Western Samoa while the other 10,400 were Samoans residing in Wellington, New Zealand. People in the latter group ‘were concerned that the remittances they were sending over for their families’ upkeep here were being subject to the 10% tax when the funds had already been taxed in New Zealand’ (Observer, March 10, 1995). On receiving the petition, the Head of State told the delegation that the Executive Council would meet to discuss it (Observer, March, 12, 1995). On March 11, a special 14-member committee was appointed by the government, with terms of reference that included investigation of the validity of the signatures in the petition (Observer, May 12, June 6, 1995). Its report, presented to the Government in mid-August 1995, invalidated the TPA petition. The report claimed that the petition was illegal because any petition was supposed to be presented to Parliament. Of the 12 matai who signed the petition, one had not officially registered his title with the Land and Titles Court. Of the alleged signatures in the petition, 122,179 had not personally signed their names. The president of TPA, Fa’amatuäinu, ‘said that even babies and children who cannot read or write were included in the petition as their parents can sign for them as they are the ones taking care of them and [feeding] them’ (Samoa Bulletin, September 22, 1995). Furthermore, the issues of the VAGST and the Chief Auditor’s report had all been debated and passed in Parliament (Savali, September 15, 1995; Observer, September 27, 1995).

In its June 24, 1994, edition, the Observer noted that the Police Department was probing whether there were seditious intentions behind the TPA national protest on March 2, 1994. The government pressed ahead with sedition charges against TPA President, Mailei, and one of its executive members, To’alepai Toesulusulu Si’ueva, despite persistent pressure from the local and international media and Amnesty International to have the charges dropped (Observer, March 15, June 28, 1995). Mailei was charged under the Criminal Act with two counts of speaking seditious words and two of publishing seditious libel. Si’ueva was charged with two counts of speaking seditious words and one of publishing seditious libel. The charges originated from events leading up to the March 2 protest march. In court, Magistrate Lussick dismissed all seven charges ‘when the prosecution failed to produce any evidence’ (Observer, June 30, 1995). The magistrate’s decision contrasted with the Police Commissioner’s earlier remarks that ‘the charges were valid and would not be withdrawn by the police’ (Observer, March 31, 1995). After this court decision, the two men planned to sue the Government for one million tala ‘for the unconstitutional way in which we were both charged [with] sedition’ (Observer, August 4, 1995).

Reflecting upon the sedition case, the leader of the opposition SNDP, in an article in the Observer (June 30, 1995) said: ‘It was an attempt to portray the Tumua and Pule movement as a real threat to law and order. The objective was to discourage the local council of churches and those who are supporting or sympathetic from a more public demonstration of support for the Tumua and Pule movement. Additionally it was intended to distract attention from the acute economic problems and corruption raised in the Auditor’s report. The tight government control on TV and radio, combined with the fact that the constituency is relatively uninformed, ensure impact and effectiveness of the message, i.e., that the Tumua and Pule movement is a threat to law and order.’

From a democratic perspective, there were important political gains arising from the TPA demonstrations and the sedition charges that resulted from them. One of them was well depicted in an Observer (June 28, 1995) editorial on the day the sedition charges were heard in court: ‘For this hearing will set a standard by which future court cases of this kind will be judged … It will serve as a powerful indicator to the nation of the amount of freedom we can really expect to have in the future.’ In other words, the sedition charges were the ultimate test of the individual rights provisions in the Constitution. The TPA legal victory was significant particularly in a situation where one political party had a large majority in Parliament, such that its power and political influence could appear to be unlimited. Yet against such power, and within a modern political system that coexists with an indigenous one, the indigenous system is now the last resort for checking that power.

The publicity generated by these developments was another milestone in educating the voting public and creating an awareness among them of the political importance of government policies. The demonstrations in February 1965 and mid-1981 were by wage and salary earners. This section of the public, in 1994, comprised only 13 per cent of the national population. The TPA was a ‘national’ protest movement, as everyone was affected by the VAGST. Ironically, the Public Service Association (PSA) did not join the protest as an organisation, although its members were not prevented from joining as individuals. The introduction of the VAGST had reduced income taxes substantially. Some 19,000 people were exempted from income tax because their salaries were below T100 a week (Observer, June 9, 1995). For the purpose of this argument, the manner in which the Head of State dealt with the TPA petition — having it referred to the Executive Council, which is a constitutional body comprising the Head of State and cabinet — demonstrated again the value of abiding by the democratic process. It helped cooled off the anger of the protesters and at the same brought about decisions on several issues the protesters had raised.