by Jamie Spiteri | Regional Correspondent
5th October 2021
Samoa’s New Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa of the FAST party can finally get to work after months of political challenges from her rival, Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi. Image: Talamua
Samoa has experienced its most disruptive political shift in 22 years. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, leader of the Faʻatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, defeated long-standing incumbent Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) to become the country’s first female Prime Minister.
Malielegaoi vehemently challenged the results of the 2021 Samoan general elections held in April, ensuring months of political impasse, before finally conceding in July. The defeat put an official end to his 22-year reign and ended four decades of HRPP rule.
The turmoil began following the April elections, which saw the HRPP and FAST tie with 25 seats each. Lone independent parliamentarian, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio, sided with FAST to give the party a ruling coalition. However, incumbent Tuilaepa refused to concede.
In response, Samoa’s Head of State, Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II, issued a proclamation preventing the legislative assembly from meeting; hindering what would have been the official swearing in ceremony needed to constitutionally cement Mata’afa as the country’s new Prime Minister.
The FAST party instead held a makeshift ceremony for her under a marquee in front of the parliament, which Tuilaepa challenged as illegitimate. That challenge was initially upheld by the Supreme Court.
However, Samoa’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, reversed that ruling, stating that the makeshift ceremony was constitutionally valid in the circumstances.
Initially, Tuilaepa indicated that he would dismiss the Court of Appeals ruling and refused to step down despite widespread international pressure. In light of Tuilaepa’s continued refusal, Sualauvi II announced a second suspension of parliament but offered no explanation. The Supreme Court moved quickly on this however, convening an ad-hoc meeting and ruling the second suspension illegal.
Tuilaepa also tried other manoeuvres to block Mata’afa’s path to parliament. Following the hung vote of 25 seats each, and prior to the Court of Appeals ruling, Tuilaepa tried using Samoa’s constitutional gender quotas, which require 10% of elected representatives to be female. Initially, 9.8% of elected positions were female; a figure the Samoan election commission refused to round up in order to recognise. On this basis, the commission overturned the FAST’s victory in one seat, awarding it to a female HRPP representative and therefore giving FAST a majority of 26 seats. However, that attempt too was overturned by the Samoan courts.
Following this suite of political ploys, Tuilaepa finally conceded in July, stating: “FAST here is the Government,” and paving the way for Mata’afa and FAST to take office.
Despite being registered as a political party less than a year ago, FAST ran a successful campaign in opposition of the controversial Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020 and Land and Titles Court Bill 2020. The HRPP passed these laws in December 2020, to criticise that the bills would undermine human rights in Samoa and establish supremacy of English Common Law over traditional Samoan Customary Law practices, which typically exist side-by-side in the country.
Yet the HRPP has introduced controversial laws in the past and still won subsequent elections. The difference in this case appears to be the nature of the campaign strategies run by the competing parties. The HRPP ran approximately two candidates per seat, while the FAST party ran only one. Splitting votes between two HRPP candidates – rather than uniting votes behind one – seemed to be a catastrophic mistake in Samoa’s first-past-the-post system.
Tuilaepa decision not to recognise the election results garnered international criticism across the Pacific, with Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, both imploring Samoa to respect international law and recognise the process of free and fair democratic elections. Prime Minister Ardern was also one of the first to expressly congratulate Mata’afa for her hard-fought and drawn-out victory.
For many Samoans, the months-long crisis is a blight on Tuilaepa’s tenure, which had until now been viewed as a period of relative stability in Samoa.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Prime Minister Mata’afa has said she hopes to establish a cabinet at the earliest possible opportunity and get to work installing a temporary budget and reviewing Samoa’s economy.
“My administration is committed to returning this country to the special place dreamt of by our forefathers, when they grabbed the mantle of independence almost 60 years ago,” she said.
The future implications of this hard-fought victory remain uncertain, although it is notable that the most profound political change in the last 40 years was met with months of political deadlock.
Yet to categorise Tuilaepa’s actions as some sort of anti-democratic, Trumpian dismissal of democratic processes lacks nuance. While there are clearly undemocratic facets to the way that he attempted to subvert a free and fair election, he did eventually acknowledge the rule of law and peacefully allow his successor her right to administer parliament. It also appears that the HRPP will remain a political force to be reckoned with in Samoa. FAST’s majority is razor thin and irrefutably reliant on an unstable coalition born out of necessity and with no strong historical bonds. In theory, the majority is only one legislative contest away from dissipating. Additionally, the importance of the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020 and Land and Titles Court Bill 2020 to the FAST party’s success cannot be overlooked. As Dr. Iati Iati of the Victoria University of Wellington put it: “no controversial bills, no FAST.”
One also cannot overlook the political lessons sure to be learnt from an established institution such as the HRPP, which will no doubt get to work making life as difficult as possible for PM Mata’afa while in opposition. Yet Samoa’s proclivity for political stability could work in her favour, historically helping to elect the incumbent come election time.
For now though, it appears that PM Mata’afa and the FAST party have legitimacy in the eyes of their people and the international community, and can begin overseeing the most profound shift in Samoan politics of the last 40 years.