The tiny Pacific island nation of Samoa is home to one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, but a challenge from his former deputy has the potential to end a multi-decade winning streak.
The country of some 197,000 hits the polls today in a national election where Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is seeking another term.
The 75-year-old has been in power for 23 years, while his political party, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), has dominated Samoa’s politics for nearly 40 years.
But he faces a significant challenge from Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the woman who up until only last year, served as his deputy prime minister.
She’s since taken on the leadership of the new opposition party, Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST party), which translates to “faith in the one true God” in Samoan.
She defected from HRPP last year after 36 years with the party, when she vehemently opposed significant changes to the country’s constitution which she feared meant Samoa was “sliding away from the rule of law”.
She claims the government was abusing its parliamentary majority to change laws to its advantage.
“It was really about perpetuating the status of power and remaining in power as opposed to focusing on the development agenda and what the country needed,” she said.
“When you have that majority, you tend to then have a sense of power that you can do whatever you like.
“And in fact, that is what was beginning to happen to the extent that you could change the law to break the law.
“It was at that point, really, that I felt I couldn’t really support that kind of regime.”
Research fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, and a former political advisor, Dr George Carter told ABC’s Pacific Beat that Samoan politics is based around family and community.
“At the end of the day, the candidates are voted in by their family members and it’s very hard to assume whether a chief or a member of candidate that’s running has had enough numbers by their family members,” he said.
Dr Carter said, despite the FAST party being around for only 5-6 months, they’ve gained popularity.
“I think there have been anti-government sentiments brewing around different corners of the country and so this [FAST] political party has picked up on some of these anti-sentiments.”
‘As a young woman, it was a long shot’
Samoa is a parliamentary democracy, but its political system is closely linked to its traditional culture and its “chiefly system”.
Chiefs hold significant power in Samoa and exert influence over a family’s political, economic, and social affairs.
And only chiefs, or matai, can run as candidates.
Fiame says it’s a system that puts most women on the back foot, to begin with.
“I think proportionally it’s something like 5 per cent of all [matai] title holders [are women], so it is a barrier”.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa’s title is ‘Fiame’, which is one of the highest in Samoa, earning her widespread respect but also an almost inevitable pathway into politics.
“I got my title when I was 20, which is very unusual,” Fiame explained.
Her father died suddenly when she was just 18.
Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II had been Samoa’s first prime minister after the island nation won its independence from New Zealand in 1962.
Despite being the only child, Fiame didn’t automatically inherit her father’s titles and had to fight for them in Samoa’s special Lands and Titles Court to make it official.
“As a young woman, it was a long shot,” Fiame said.
“With my claims on those titles, although there was a view from the court, who are mostly older Samoan men, that I wasn’t suitable because I was so young at the time and unmarried, and unmarried meaning you are not quite stable.
“I tell women if you have the advantage of the hierarchy of titles, then you should always use that.”
Samoa did introduce reserved seats in Parliament in 2016, allocating 10 per cent of seats to women.
Change in the air
Samoa had effectively been a one-party state, with no opposition in Parliament in the past five-year term and the government holding 46 of 50 seats.
But the FAST party has quickly gained enormous support, with pre-polling showing it has 41 per cent of the vote, while HRPP is sitting at 53 per cent.
It has also received significant backing from the large Samoan diaspora in Australia, New Zealand the United States, which has largely footed the party’s campaign bill.
“I don’t know if surprised is the word, but it’s almost like a phenomenon with the level of support, especially from the overseas diaspora,” Fiame said.
New Zealand-based political analyst Christina Laa-la’ai Tausa said by holding campaign roadshows in villages across the country, the FAST party transformed the way political campaigns are carried out in Samoa.
“With FAST and their roadshows, there’s been a lot of political talk, there’s a lot of political dialogue, political discussions and political socialisation,” Ms Laa-La’ai Tausa said.
Samoa’s Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio has welcomed the shift.
“We’ve never seen aggressive political rallies as we’ve seen now, aggressive media campaigns on TV and newspapers and stuff, so that’s really changed the dynamics of our political parties,” he said.
“I think for democracy it’s good.”
But many political observers aren’t convinced it will be enough to overthrow the powerful HRPP, which has 105 candidates running compared with 52 from the FAST party and a handful from two other small parties.
Tuiasau Uelese Petaia — who is running as a candidate for the HRPP — said he welcomed a competitive opposition.
“Any good democracy needs a strong opposition and it’s unfortunate that in past there hasn’t been and that it’s taken some rogue HRPP members to set up this new opposition,” he said laughing.
The ABC reached out to the Prime Minister but has not had a response.
Video: Some ministers promoted on the basis of ‘biology or beliefs’ rather than ability: Bernardi (Sky News Australia)
Source: Thanks msn.com