SAMOA ROAD SWITCH A HIGH STAKES POLITICAL GAMBLE

Commentary

By Russell Hunter APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, August 24, 2009) - A week, the saying goes, is a long time in politics. If that’s so, then 18 months is an eternity.

And that’s how long the people of Samoa will have to wait to pass judgment on the incumbent government.

Will the fiery passions stirred by the road switch decision have spent themselves by then?

As always, only time will tell.

But it’s all too easy to assume right now that the Human Rights Protection Party and in particular its leader have staked their political futures on the road switch. From today’s standpoint it must seem that they have done just that. For the fact that there is genuine anger in the community over the government’s decision to push ahead with the switch no matter what is beyond dispute.

But going back to what is an eternity in politics, perhaps the government, in taking a longer view, is wiser (or perhaps wilier) than many give it credit for. After all, you don’t spend upwards of a quarter of a century in power without learning something of the art of political survival.

Consider this. If the government is right and the switch happens with minimal damage and no more than a few minor impacts, we’ll soon become accustomed to driving on the left and left-hand drive vehicles will gradually phase out. (Whether they’ll replaced by free vehicles from our southern metropolitan neighbors is yet to be seen).

Even in the scenario – widely predicted by opponents of the switch – where the major beneficiaries are the crash repair workshops, there is ample time for the national memory bank to be erased or at least blurred before the next votes are cast.

Of course we all pray – the government no doubt included – that regardless of any politics there will be no personal injuries or worse as a result of the switch. Again, we can only wait and hope.

But once again, looking at the political landscape only, the government clearly feels confident that it has the support of the majority or at least that it will have that support once the switch is implemented.

And if it’s proved wrong? Well there’s still time to deflect attention to other matters before election time.

This assumes, of course, that the switch will go relatively smoothly – a dangerous and barely credible assumption some will say, though the government obviously doesn’t agree.

In the event that the switch causes even some of the damage its opponents predict, it will be infinitely harder (but by no means impossible) to wipe the political slate clean before the 2011 election.

This is the political risk the government has opted to take and we have to think it has considered that risk very carefully.

Similarly, those politicians and would-be politicians who have been raising their profiles through their conscientious and no doubt heartfelt support of the anti-switch campaign may find they need another issue or issues to campaign on when the time comes to face the voters.

None of this, I should stress, is intended to express an opinion about the road switch nor about its proponents and opponents who have taken (for the most part) highly moral stands on the issue.

But to assume that the government has staked its very survival on the switch is probably as valid as the assumption mentioned above.

Russell Hunter, former publisher of the Fiji Sun, was deported from that country by the Bainimarama military regime in 2008 for critical editorials on the political situation in Fiji. He currently writes opinion pieces for the Samoa Observer.

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