Political leadership

The late Tofilau Eti Alesana, the HRPP leader and Prime Minister from April 1982 until his retirement in 1998 because of ill health, is credited with his party’s political success in the polls because of his astute leadership skills. The following party political events under his leadership testify to this claim. After the defection of 11 HRPP MPs in 1985 to form a coalition government with Efi’s opposition supporters — thereby defeating the HRPP Government’s 1986 budget — the HRPP came up with a party-pledge system to keep HRPP MPs bound to the party. MPs who had signed their consent to the pledge system would be fined T50,000 if they left the party. Since then, no one has left the party. In the 1988 general elections, the HRPP desperately needed one more HRPP supporter in order to win government back from the coalition. After the results were known, Alesana managed to convince one of the MPs who contested the elections under the coalition ticket to switch party allegiance on the eve of the prime ministerial elections in Parliament. Alesana and his party successfully wrested the reins of power from the Coalition Government and the MP who defected from the opposition camp was chosen as a minister in the new cabinet.

In government, Alesana passed two important pieces of legislation. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary’s Act 1988 gave Parliament the power to appoint parliamentary undersecretaries. Nine such appointments were made, thus guaranteeing political rewards for another nine HRPP caucus members for their support of the prime minister’s party. The prime minister and the eight ministers in his cabinet were each given a parliamentary undersecretary. After securing a two-thirds majority in Parliament to amend the Constitution in 1991 after the general elections, Alesana passed a constitutional amendment to increase from eight to 12 the number of ministers in cabinet, each of whom was entitled to a parliamentary undersecretary. With 13 ministers in cabinet including the prime minister and 13 parliamentary undersecretaries, the HRPP already had the guaranteed support of 26 MPs. In a Parliament of 49 seats, the HRPP would already have the support of the majority. Political experience has been that the issue of appointments to cabinet would make or break parliamentary support. Alesana consistently argued that the defection of the 11 HRPP MPs to form the coalition government had arisen out of unhappiness with his selection of HRPP MPs to be in his cabinet. Four of those who defected became ministers in the coalition cabinet, under Kolone as Prime Minister.

There have been times in the past when the Government found it hard to work with the Public Service. One example was the PSA strike, which lasted for three months in 1981. The Government was powerless to control the public servants. Arguably, this strike helped put the HRPP in government in the general elections the next year. Mindful of these recent events, the HRPP passed the Special Posts Act 1990. It transferred from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to cabinet the right to appoint heads of government ministries and corporations on a two-year contract basis. It was a subtle way of obtaining HRPP support from among the senior public servants and holders of corporate positions and through them the political support of lower-ranked employees.

When Alesana sensed that his party would probably lose the 1991 general elections because it had not been able to do enough in terms of improving the condition of roads, he introduced universal suffrage in the 1991 elections after a positive vote in a referendum that was conducted on the issue in the previous year. At the time, only the matai (chiefs) had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The HRPP was ushered back into power, winning 32 of Parliament’s 47 seats (So’o and Fraenkel 2005).

Alesana’s leadership style had been severely criticised by the opposition party and the public generally. In the early 1990s when the report of the Controller and Chief Auditor was tabled in Parliament, it pointed to possible corruption in high places. It created embarrassment for the Government. As a consequence of the political debate arising from this report, the HRPP Government passed a constitutional amendment which limited the term of the Controller and Chief Auditor to a contract of three years, in line with heads of other government corporations whose appointments were made under the Special Post Act 1990. At the time, the appointment of the Controller and Chief Auditor was a constitutional one for a term of 60 years, which was basically for life (Constitution Art. 97.3). The new amendment gave the Government the power to not renew the contract of a Controller and Chief Auditor after three years. The controversial Controller and Chief Auditor, whose report to Parliament created much animosity between the Government and the opposition and some sections of the community, was given the right to apply for his old job under the new conditions. He chose not to apply.

In the late 1990s, while Alesana was Prime Minister, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Tupua Tamasese ’Efi, lodged a petition with the Supreme Court complaining that his party had been prevented from having air time on television and the government-controlled radio station, thereby preventing the public from knowing about its views. When Alesana passed away in 1999, his successor, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, took over the leadership and therefore became the main defender of Tamasese ’Efi’s complaint in the court. The court ruled in favour of ’Efi. Yet despite the controversial nature of the two cases already described and the negative media publicity they generated, they did not seem to affect the political status of the HRPP as it was brought back to power in the 1996 general elections, having won 27 of the 49 seats in Parliament. Despite these controversial issues under Alesana’s leadership, he and the HRPP clearly retained the voting public’s support.

The political success of Alesana’s party can also be explained by projects it was able to complete throughout its time in office. The electrification program in the 1980s took electricity to about 90 per cent of homes. The country’s first national television station was opened in 1993. The National University of Samoa was opened to its foundation class in 1984 and has since developed into a fully fledged university with five faculties, an Institute of Samoan Studies and the appointment of its first three professors in 2004. There has been intensive work on water infrastructure and access roads for plantation agriculture. The old-age pension, though meagre by overseas standards, has not only given T100 a month to those who are 65 years and over, it has made that section of the population feel important. The establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs on the eve of the introduction of universal suffrage recognised the contribution of women to the development of the country. It was also a gesture that earned for the HRPP the respect and political support of women throughout the country, who in turn contributed to the electoral success of the HRPP in the polls in the general elections the next year.

Equally important, if not the most important variable, in the HRPP’s ability to create and maintain political stability in Samoa is the local culture, which is generally referred to as fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way). An editorial in the most-read local newspaper, The Samoa Observer (September 2, 2005), tried to describe the contribution of Samoan culture to political stability:

Fa’a Samoa prevents political upheavals

Though Samoa, Tonga and Fiji have a lot of cultural similarities, Samoa’s social structure has always been less stratified than its neighbours. Power and prestige in Tonga is exclusive to its royal family and the King’s nobles. The rest of the population are deemed to be ‘commoners’, locked in an age-old role of servitude. Fiji’s chiefly system is similar, in which one is born a Ratu or Adi. On the other hand, rank and status in Samoa have always been owed to personal merit and achievement. Title accession is largely the prerogative of the aiga, family. While chiefly titleholders have authority, real power remains with the family. Power broking, many would argue, has been the domain of silver-tongued orators who are always on the lookout to elevate their ali’i’s status, thus their own. Often when Tongans speak of their King, Samoans respond: ‘In Samoa everyone is a king (and queen).’ This is based on fa’a Samoa’s emphasis on matai titles and genealogy. It is a culture that embraces interpersonal relations. Every Samoan has access to any number of matai titles and all titles are interconnected through lineage. Dig deep enough and one will find every Samoan is related, many times, in many ways.

Furthermore, Samoa, unlike Tonga and Fiji, has never had any form of central government. It always existed as fiercely independent states, which in modern times have been termed districts. The states were a cluster of relatively autonomous villages: Fa’alenu’u, village polity, being the embryonic fabric of fa’a Samoa. Though there are paramount titles particular to each district, many times the titleholder is powerful only as far as his ability to gain the full support of his district villages and form allegiances with other districts. Will Samoans one day reject the tama-a-’äiga as some observers ask? As long as Samoa practises its culture and holds dear its intricate familial connections, it will never happen.


Set to wage war on Lea’ea i Sasa’e district, which had been enslaving her people, the war goddess Nafanua was advised by her mother, Tilafaiga, ‘A pa’ia le pa i Fualaga, sua le tuli aua le Ali’ioaiga’ (When you reach the pa at Fualaga, stop the killing in respect to the Ali’ioaiga — this is in reference to Siali’itu, who resided at Faia’ai village, some accounts say, and was a brother of Tilafaiga). It was said to be one of the bloodiest wars in Samoa but Nafanua’s clubs were never wielded beyond Fualaga. Even in times of war, Samoa’s family connections are upheld.

It is personal respect among Samoans because of family connections, among other considerations, that makes Samoans think twice before involving themselves in activities that could contribute to or result in political upheaval. As one doctor who has served in the national hospital for 56 years has recalled of a planned strike by the doctors in the past because of salary issues: ‘The strike was averted when the Head of State, His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II, intervened. He came to the hospital, sat down with the doctors and asked for the strike to be called off. What can the doctors do, this was the Head of State? Out of respect, no strike took place’ (The Samoa Observer, September 6, 2005). The HRPP succeeded in preventing open conflict by appealing to and taking advantage of those cultural elements.