A female first for Samoa
Samoa’s April election saw Naomi Mata’afa emerge the winner to become its first female prime minister, but only after an intense three-month political struggle. With the result finally balanced between her challenger party and the long-term ruling party, the incumbent prime minister did everything he could to cling to power, while the Head of State’s interventions called his impartiality into question. Ultimately judicial independence was key in upholding the rule of law. Now Mata’afa has been confirmed as prime minister, there is a need to build bridges across the political divide and for both parties to respect each other’s role in the new parliament. With her win offering a landmark in political representation, the new prime minister should work with civil society to bring tangible gains in women’s equality.
Samoa now has its first female prime minister and has undergone a rare change of government – but only after an immense struggle.
April’s general election presented an unprecedented challenge to the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), in power since 1982. The HRPP’s leader, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, had been prime minister since 1998. However, in 2021 he was opposed by Naomi Mata’afa, former deputy prime minister and deputy HRPP leader, who quit her roles following a public disagreement with Tuila’epa in September 2020.
In March 2021 Mata’afa was elected leader of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, a new opposition party largely formed by HRPP defectors. Several members of parliament switched to oppose a controversial new law on land ownership along with constitutional amendments that, they said, undermined the rule of law and judicial independence. Corruption and nepotism concerns also surrounded the long-established prime minister.
This was the first time Samoan voters were presented with a broad-based opposition party, positioning itself as a credible government in waiting. More than usually intense campaigning, with a heavy use by FAST in particular of social media and engagement with Samoa’s extensive diaspora, reflected the fact that more seemed at stake than in past votes, with a sense among some voters that change was overdue. Voting on 9 April produced a knife-edge result, with the HRPP and FAST each winning 25 seats in the 51-seat Legislative Assembly. This was a huge reversal for the HRPP compared to its landslide win in the 2016 election, when it dominated the Assembly with 35 seats.
Independent candidate Iosefo Ponifasio won the remaining seat, and therefore apparently held the balance of power. But then on 20 April the electoral commission unexpectedly declared the creation of a further Assembly seat, on the grounds of complying with a gender quota requirement that a minimum of 10 per cent of seats should be held by women. This meant that a further HRPP candidate, Ali’imalemanu Alofa Tuuau, was elected, apparently tipping the scales in the HRPP’s favour. But the following day, Ponifasio announced he was joining FAST, leaving the two parties again deadlocked on 26 seats each.
Deadlock sets in
Amidst the filing of numerous election petitions, the opening of parliament was delayed. Samoa’s Head of State, Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aleto’a Sualauvi, brought the two parties together on 4 May to try to agree a plan to hold a second election. FAST resisted this, calling for election petitions and court cases to be resolved first; FAST had challenged the constitutionality of the appointment of the extra Assembly member before election petitions could be heard, since these might change the final gender composition of the Assembly. But Sualauvi went ahead regardless and ordered that the Assembly be dissolved and an unprecedented fresh election held.
FAST went to court, and on 17 May the Supreme Court overruled Sualauvi’s decision, ruling that no new election should be held and the Assembly should be convened. The Court also ruled that the appointment of Ali’imalemanu Alofa Tuuau as an additional Assembly member was unconstitutional. FAST now had a majority of one.
Attempts by the defeated HRPP to appeal against the Supreme Court decision quickly came to nothing and on 21 May the Head of State issued a proclamation that the new Assembly would open on 24 May. Matter settled, it may have seemed. But a mere day later, Sualauvi suspended his proclamation, declining to give reasons.
Instead of being sworn in as Samoa’s next prime minister, Mata’afa was left denouncing what had happened as a coup. A full-on constitutional crisis was underway when, the day after the Head of State’s announcement, the Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly’s suspension was unlawful and it should still be convened on 24 May.
But when Mata’afa and her FAST party representatives arrived at the Assembly on 24 May, it was to find the doors locked. Police barred entry to the building. The Speaker, HRPP member Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi, declared that the swearing-in ceremony was cancelled, and HRPP members refused to attend. FAST members instead held an impromptu swearing-in ceremony in a tent outside the building. Tuila’epa, who insisted he had been ‘appointed by God’ to lead the country, denounced the swearing-in as treason and Mata’afa reported that she faced prosecution.
Amid the deadlock, the United Nations called for dialogue, and the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand pointed to the need to uphold the rule of law. The spotlight increasingly fell on the Head of State, with his political impartiality called into question. It seemed legitimate to ask whether, having ignored Supreme Court rulings, Sualauvi considered himself above the law. Judicial independence was further threatened when the Attorney-General briefly tried to disqualify all serving judges from hearing appeals on the crisis.
Dispute reaches a conclusion
But then what seemed an entrenched deadlock began to crumble. After the impromptu swearing-in ceremony, other Pacific Islands states started to recognise Mata’afa as prime minister and FAST as the party of government. As election petitions were heard, numerous cases of malpractice by HRPP politicians were revealed and the former ruling party began to shed representatives, falling foul of new laws introduced to stop candidates giving bribes and material incentives to voters.
Between June and August, four HRPP members of parliament were convicted and expelled on such grounds and several others agreed to resign and not contest by-elections. By August, far from being a deadlock, the composition of parliament stood at 26 FAST members and only 18 from the HRPP, with multiple by-elections pending. This started to look like a changing of the political guard.
The Head of State however continued to stand at odds with the court. On 28 June, the Supreme Court ruled that the swearing-in ceremony held on 24 May was unlawful, and ordered that the Assembly should convene within seven days; however, if the Assembly did not convene, it stated that the 24 May swearing-in would become valid because the country needed to have a government. The Head of State still refused to open the Assembly until August.
But the rule of law ultimately triumphed when on 23 July the Court of Appeal issued a ruling that the 24 May swearing-in ceremony was binding, meaning that FAST had been in government since then. The police confirmed they would follow the court’s lead. Tuila’epa again questioned the independence of the courts and even accused them of treason, but on 26 July the Head of State finally recognised the new government, and Tuila’epa was forced to concede.
HRPP protesters continued to protest against the judiciary and Tuila’epa further tried to undermine the legitimacy of the result, baselessly accusing New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of somehow being behind the political crisis with the intention of installing a female prime minster. It seemed a prime minister long in office and a party that was not used to losing elections simply could not imagine that voters may have wanted change. Tuila’epa now faces contempt charges for trying to obstruct the convening of parliament. On 2 September, the Attorney-General, who far from upholding judicial independence had tried to undermine it, was dismissed.
The Assembly finally met on 14 September, but the dispute is still not over. The new Speaker, FAST member Papali’i Li’o Masipa’u, refused to swear in HRPP members on the grounds that they did not recognise FAST as the governing party and him as Speaker. The Assembly therefore met with only FAST members present, with barricades surrounding the building and HRPP members barred from entering. With FAST presenting its budget against a backdrop of zero opposition, this was a far from auspicious start for the new regime.
Both sides need to respect democracy
This has been a troubling time for democracy in Samoa but can also be seen as marking a new stage in democratic development. Universal suffrage was only achieved in 1990, meaning that this is still a young democracy, and in such contexts it is not unusual for a single party to have initial dominance, particularly in small states where personal connections between candidates and voters may count for more than ideology. Over time, ruling parties tend to develop a presumption of continued power, and the entitlement and corruption associated with it. Recent threats to the rule of law and moves ahead of the election that included legal threats against Samoa’s largest newspaper, accusations of treason against opposition politicians and proposals to ban Facebook seemed to indicate this, as did the numerous examples of electoral malpractice by HRPP members.
A key moment in a country’s democratic journey comes when a credible challenger to established power emerges, and when a change of power results, as seen in another small island state, Seychelles, in 2020. It seems Samoa has passed this test of its democratic resilience, but not easily. Ultimately judicial independence proved to be crucial for upholding the rule of law and finding a way through the fog of political manoeuvring.
Samoa has passed a test of its democratic resilience, but not easily.
There are still challenges. The new government can expect to face simmering resentment and questioning of its legitimacy from HRPP supporters. The impartiality and role of the Head of State has been brought under unprecedented scrutiny. The ruling party may be tempted to exclude the opposition.
But a narrow and contested election victory offers no mandate for any attempt to govern through a winner-takes-all approach. The new government should recognise the role judicial independence played in resolving the election, and commit strongly to continuing to uphold this. It should also actively promote bridge-building across the divisions that intensified during 15 weeks of contestation. Civil society can play a crucial part in building social and political consensus, and the new government should recognise this.
The former ruling party should recognise the legitimacy of the final outcomes of the election. And the new ruling party should in turn accept that robust opposition is part of government, and both the opposition and civil society have a role to play in scrutinising the new government and holding it to account on its performance. If this happens, democracy will have been strengthened as a result.
A step forward for women
That Samoa has its first female prime minister is a landmark, and not just for the country, but for Pacific Island states as a whole. Outside Australia and New Zealand, Mata’afa is only the second-ever head of a government in Oceania, following in the footsteps of the Hilda Heine, President of the Marshall Islands from 2016 to 2020.
Across the Pacific Island nations, under eight per cent of members of parliament are women and three countries – Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu – have no women in parliament at all. In the case of Papua New Guinea this is despite having a parliament with 111 members, much larger than any other in the region.
WOMEN IN PARLIAMENT IN THE PACIFIC ISLAND NATIONS
In Samoa, it is of course ironic that the country has its first female prime minister only after an attempt to apply a very minimal gender quota was legally defeated. In the heated debates of the past few months, the existence and role of the quota was called into question. Attention should now fall on enhancing the quota, already a rarity in the Pacific, but also addressing the systemic barriers to women’s political participation in Samoa. These include the fact that for almost all Legislative Assembly seats only matai – chiefs – are eligible to stand, and almost all matai are men: less than two per cent of women hold a matai title, compared to over 15 per cent of men.
Prime Minister Mata’afa, a high-ranking chief and daughter of a former prime minister, is firmly a figure of the establishment, but she has spoken of her desire to be a role model for promoting women’s participation. A 25 per cent female cabinet is her first signal of intent. Against the Pacific’s backdrop of underrepresentation, Mata’afa has the potential to offer inspiration to future women leaders, not only in Samoa but around the region – but only if she uses her new power to make a difference to the lives of Samoan women and advance women’s rights. Prime Minister Mata’afa, having come through political strife, should now commit to listening to and partnering with women’s rights groups.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government should commit strongly to upholding the rule of law, and both the new government and the former ruling party should commit to dialogue and recognise the proper role of both government and opposition.
Samoa’s new government should put in place policies to advance women’s rights and promote equality.
Samoa’s new government should commit to working in partnership with civil society.