Friday, 13 July 2007 7:06 PM

Caution: Politics of Division Ahead

Our national constitution declares that "all power in Solomon Islands belongs to its people and is exercised on their behalf by the legislature, the executive and the judiciary established by [the] Constitution". It should come as no surprise then that the actions (or inactions) by these three arms of government are bound to undergo scrutiny from the people from time to time. Ultimately, these three institutions are accountable to the people of the Solomon Islands. Decisions taken should naturally be in the interest of the people. The checks and balances, judicial review and redress mechanisms, consultation provisions and other constitutional processes are but some of the tools put in place to ensure, among other things, that the people's interests are protected.

Having said the foregoing, it is also fact that the "people" are not always in one accord. Coupled with the natural God given gift for man to think freely (a right guaranteed by the constitution), the make-up of our inherent ethnic and culturally differences underscores the need for our nation to be more united, even as we celebrate our diversities. If there was any doubt on the need for such unity, the recent dark chapter in our history, commonly referred to as the "ethnic tensions" period, should serve as a sobering reminder of the destruction that can befall our nation when we shun unity. Unity is essential if the nation is to attain "joy, peace, progress and prosperity". Indeed, unity in diversity is what we need. The mammoth responsibility of the government to nurture, encourage, facilitate, cultivate and strengthen this sense of national unity is a solemn yet vital duty. All peace loving Solomon Islanders should be encouraged, in partnership with the government of the day, to uphold values that promote national pride and unity.

It is therefore heartening that, in his recent address marking the 29th anniversary of our independence, our Head of Government, the PM, in expressing the belief that "there is a lot going for this country", called on all to "shed off our ethnic, political, social and professional barriers and work together as Solomon Islanders because only together can we make a better Solomon Islands. [He] cannot think of any other way". I, and I suspect many other fellow Solomon Islanders, would share these very sentiments.

While I readily concede that such speeches and their contents are well within the remit of the PM as our Head of Government, I still found some of its contents unsettling. The choice of language in certain portions of the speech, in my reading of the same, directly undermined the aforementioned call for unity. For example, the use of the qualifier "red-blooded" before the noun "Solomon Islanders" is one that has been used on the floor of our parliament by the PM in the past. That it was employed in his address, in the context of the need to protect our state sovereignty "at all cost", is an attempt in categorization that could potentially pit Solomon Islanders against one another. Besides the derived implication that could be deduced from such a description, that there may be some among us with different coloured blood; "blood", in our cultural context, denotes a sense of exclusivity - belonging to a certain family/tribe. The logical conclusion to such an assertion in the PM's address is that he was advocating that there are different categories of Solomon Islanders. There are "Solomon Islanders" and then there are "red-blooded Solomon Islanders", with red blooded Solomon Islanders somehow possessing more Solomon Islandness, whatever that may mean. Such a categorization, viewed in light of the aforementioned cultural context, will undoubtedly play to the emotions of some of our fellow citizens. But in essence, the use of such language is devoid of any sense of rationality. In my opinion, this is nothing short of propaganda. One conceived to deliberately challenge and divide. The effort to divide in this instance, therefore, was not only implicit, it was expressed - and so expressed in an address to the nation by the Head of Government, on the occasion of a national celebration no less.

Another example of divisiveness utilized in the said address is in the use of yet another qualifier. In his speech the PM thanked "right thinking Solomon Islanders" for their support for his government. The use of such phraseology, bordering on ridicule, again directly implied a negative; that there are "wrong thinking" Solomon Islanders around (presumably those that may have dissenting views of his government's policies/agenda). Such attempts to categorize and divide fellow Solomon Islanders through ridicule or by inciting emotions are unhelpful, if not downright dangerous. As a strategy, these attempts to divide and rule serve the purpose of solidifying the support base of the protagonist while alienating those who may have an alternative view. Such a political ploy has worked effectively well in other foreign jurisdictions. For the most part, however, such political gamesmanship has traditionally been confined to the floor of parliaments/congress, between opposing political parties and politicians- usually between those in power and those waiting for their turn to rule. That, these labeling have spilled over into the public arena, promulgated by none other than the PM himself against his own fellow ordinary citizens, is quite a novelty in democracies, but not one entirely unheard of either. However, throw in the ethnic and cultural diversities that exist in our shores and such political strategies could easily become a toxic cocktail that could end up in another round of national self-inflicted undoing.

From my observations, this politics of division has been advanced for sometime now. The recent "bribery" scandal saw the PM using words such as "God protected" and "evil strategies" in reference to his government, and his description of the opposition's tactics. Such "good vs. evil" and "either you're with us or you're against us" approaches are very similar to the political strategies adopted by the current leader of the world's sole remaining superpower. While the administration of this world leader and that of our current government may seemingly share similar strategies (and increasingly similar political appointments/offices), the irony is that, in my opinion, the respective world views and ideals of these two leaders cannot be more polarized. But then again, I may be wrong, for I cannot recall Solomon Islands withdrawing from the "coalition of the willing" list that had been compiled by Washington either. It is unfortunate enough already that such divisiveness is laced in an important speech by our PM, but the fact that the government has continued to push its own controversial agenda, including the rearming and appointments of the Police Chief and the AG, in the face of vocal and widespread public opposition further confirms, in my analysis, that this politics of division is entrenched as a strategic tool to divide and rule.

An adverse side-effect of division is that it spawns insecurity. It should be recalled that ones threat perceptions are a result of the conditions one may have been exposed to or treatment that one may have been subjected to. Needless to say, threat perceptions, real or imagined, vary greatly amongst and between peoples, even those who share one nationality. The current government's own perception of national, regional and world politics and security have resulted in it adopting a confrontational approach that, in my opinion, only hurts the noble efforts that should be carried out to unite a young, dynamic and potentially great nation. After all, given the collective history of our many and diverse peoples forced to forge a modern nation in an ever shrinking world, in my opinion, the true test of our independence and sovereignty, contrary to what the text books might say, lies in our unity and our ability to build a strong and united Solomon Islands that is not hung-up on the influence other more powerful countries may wield over us, but rather on what we do to improve the standard of living of our populace, our respect human rights, holding true to the adage that no one is above the law. On the continuous battle for the right to claim support of the silent majority, arguments recently articulated, including those by the recently "appointed" AG, that are based on the assumption that government can push its agenda because it has the support of the "silent majority" are, I submit, misplaced.

While its not my intention to dilute the discourse on legal theories such as the "social contract" or the "consent to be governed" that are relevant and no doubt apply to the relationship between the government and the governed in the Solomon Islands, a closer examination of the current national election and democratic processes should bare out the reasons for my aforementioned assertion.
It will be recalled that of the current sitting 48 MPs, only three, by my count, can truly claim to have the undisputed mandate from their electorates by virtue of winning the majority vote of their respective constituencies or by contesting unopposed. The remaining 45 MPs were in fact elected by a minority of voters in their electorates. A tallying of the votes gained by all losing candidates in any of these 45 constituencies will prove this point. This is due to the combination of two primary factors: the current first past the post election system, and the unusually high number of candidates who contested the fifty seats during the last elections. In fact the majority of registered voters who cast their votes at the last election did not vote for the current MPs. In other words, the majority of the population of Solomon Islands, at the time of the election, did not support the winning candidate. Sure, the elections were democratic. Sure, they were constitutional. Indeed, the outcomes were legal (without prejudice to outstanding legal petitions before the courts). But can one truly claim to have the support/mandate of/from the majority of their electorate when in fact they did not vote for him? It is in light of these facts that claims of "representing the wishes of the silent majority" are simply not accurate when employed by politicians to claim widespread support from the greater public on any given issue. The acknowledgement of this reality by our democratically elected MPs could be a truly humbling experience. I would think that with such realization, no effort would be spared in uniting their peoples and constituents. Particularly, to help them recover from the post election blues that usually affects the majority of the voters. Such wide spread post election trauma experienced by a large portion of voters is understandable. After all, they voted for losing candidates. I am sure our MPs and politicians realize this fact. But it has not stopped them from advancing the "silent majority" argument for their own political gains. But I digress.

In light of this apparent divisive strategy currently employed by the government including its relentless efforts to push controversial agendas, it is only understandable that questions regarding the authenticity of the call for unity by the PM in his independence anniversary speech are being raised. The government may need to change this strategy. It may need to keep pace with an increasingly politically savvy public. To state the obvious, the populace and demography have changed dramatically since independence. Solomon Islands today is not the same as the one we inherited at independence. Indeed, our nation today is different from the one which existed only seven short years ago. The world too has changed. The gulf between "the haves" and "the have nots" continue to expand both globally and nationally. While our natural resource base continues to shrink, the nation's largest untapped resource - human resource - is still awaiting to realize its full potential. We now have tertiary educated graduates competing for what little is available for them in an already tight national job market. There are now more people, many of them young, who through their education, training, and exposure are thinking more critically and independently than any other time in our history. They will become more vocal. Many will be fueled by frustration. Government authorities will be scrutinized than ever before. They should expect and even welcome this. Just because critical thinking Solomon Islanders might have a different view point from the one proffered by government does not necessarily mean that they are automatically siding with foreigners, or are influenced by outsiders. Nor does it mean they love their country, peoples and families less. To even imply or allege so is an insult to these fellow Solomon Islanders. As I see it, the politics of division, currently promulgated by the government, must seize if constructive dialogue between the government and the governed is to yield positive national results for the betterment of our nation. Indeed, it is healthy to acknowledge that we can be one united people, with varying points of view. This would reflect well on our fledgling democracy.

As an observation, I find it quite ironic that a government bent on protecting state sovereignty from some outside forces, and drawing connections between our nation's ills and "failed decolonization", is itself employing the highly successful colonial doctrine of "divide and rule" as a political strategy to push its agenda and maintain a vice-like grip on power. But then again, I have also noticed that such self-contradictions have been a prominent feature of our present government's modus operandi as well. Indeed, words uttered and actions taken have not always matched. In fairness, the government has only been in power for only a little over a year. Perhaps the work to unite the nation, underscored by the PM's announcement that a national reconciliation event will be convened at next year's independence celebration, has only begun. Even so, one thing remains clear. Every move by the current government, however controversial and divisive or what ever their consequences and repercussions, has been carefully calculated and weighed by the powers that be. I would not be surprised if self-contradiction is just another political strategy employed by the current government for the advancement of its own agenda capitalizing on the confusion being generated.
Political strategies aside, this constitutional truth remains: "all power in Solomon Islands belongs to its people and is exercised on their behalf."



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Peter Kenilorea (Jr.) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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