During the year in review, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) maintained its dominance over the unofficial minority parties. However, the introduction of several controversial policies led to some fragmentation of the party following the defection of two HRPP stalwarts. With the breakup of the Samoa Development United Party (SDUP) the previous year, there was no official opposition party in the Samoan Parliament, so effective opposition to government measures was missing. The year may be described as one where the Human Rights Protection Party, principally through its leader, the effervescent Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, attempted to test the limits of its political power. The result was the emergence of people power, but will that be enough to halt the HRPP juggernaut?
The most controversial issue, which has led to some fragmentation in the HRPP political machinery, was the adoption of a policy that banned left-hand-drive motor vehicles, and changed the side of the road on which traffic travels from the right to the left. Horse carriages and motor vehicles have been driven on the right-hand side of the road in Sāmoa since 1899, so it was a shock when the country learned in early September 2007 that the Tuilaepa government was drafting a bill to change that. Perhaps it was not so much the policy itself that prompted public opposition, but the manner in which it was introduced: There was no consultation with stakeholders, no proper scientific study to determine the effects of such a change, rejection of expert opinion by the Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Professional Engineers, Samoa (IPES), and inattentiveness to public opinion. In other words, there was a perceived lack of transparency and accountability in the formulation of the new government policy, leading to charges of recklessness and possible underhanded dealings. Public accusations against the prime minister over the issue were simply laughed off, which made public relations even worse.
The reason the prime minister gave to the Samoa Observer for implementing the policy was the need to align with neighboring countries, namely New Zealand and Australia (SO, 18 Sept 2007). Of course, it was only the first shot fired in a propaganda war that pitted the prime minister and his Human Rights Protection Party against some of the most powerful civic forces in the country—a war [End Page 175] that was to last the better part of a year. Never has an issue dominated the editorial section of the Samoa Observer for so long, with the great majority of letter writers opposed to the switch. In response, the government used its own newspaper, the Savali, and the government-owned SBC TV and SBC Radio to counter the arguments of its opponents.
The immediate reaction to the announcement came from the Samoa Rental Car Association, which opposed the switch. There was no doubt in the mind of the association president that such a change would have dire consequences for the carrental business in Sāmoa, the belief being that tourists would feel uncomfortable because they were used to driving on the right side of the road. The switch would also pose a major problem to the association's members, because all their new vehicles are lefthand drive. Above all the association condemned the government's failure to consult with stakeholders (SO, 19 Sept 2007). Other areas of concern to the association were the high cost of conversions (which could amount to millions), potential lawsuits, death, and compensation.
The next round of opposition came from a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made up of the Samoa Chamber of Commerce, the Samoa Umbrella of Non-Government Organizations (SUNGO), the Samoa Association of Manufacturers and Exporters, Women in Business, and the Taxi Association of Samoa. These organizations argued that the switch would cause enormous hardship to all Samoans, and they expressed concern about the potential for more car accidents and serious injuries; the high cost of changing infrastructure (roads, signage, traffic lights, etc); and the environmental impact of scrapped left-hand-drive cars. They estimated that the total cost to the economy would be at least 790 million Samoan tala (SO, 5...