Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

SAMOA – General Elections

Digital Snapshot #08/21

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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The Independent State of Samoa held general elections on 9 April.

Voters were called upon to elect the 17th Parliament (Parlamene) from just under 200 candidates representing five parties plus a dozen independents. The unofficial election result sees both major parties with 25 seats each in the 51-seat parliament, meaning the only independent candidate may play the role of kingmaker. Official counting is ongoing and will determine if there is indeed a tie between the incumbent Human Rights Protection (HRP) Party and the newly founded Faatuatua i Le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (Faith in one true God) (FAST) Party. The latest statements made by the independent candidate, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, suggest that he may side with FAST.

Background

Samoa’s National Legislative Assembly (fono) has 51 members who are elected for five-year terms. Candidates must hold a registered title (matai) to be eligible to stand for parliament. Matai are selected by the senior members of their extended family (aiga) to hold a family title, with the endorsement of the village with which the title is historically associated. Their role is to ensure the well-being of their family both in and outside of the country. According to the Samoa Bureau of Statistics, the country has a population of about 200,000 (see Population & Demography Indicator Summary). In 2016, 9.5% held matai titles, 8.5% of which were men and 1% of which were women (see Samoa Gender Dynamics Monograph). In order to address this imbalance, Samoa reserved by constitutional reform in 2013 a minimum of five parliamentary seats to women. If less than five seats are won by women, additional seats are added to be held by women candidates with the highest number of votes.

The Cabinet consists of the prime minister and twelve ministers. The incumbent Prime Minister (Palemia) Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi has been in office since 1998; his HRP Party has governed the country since 1982. In the 2016 general elections, HRPP won 46 of the (then) 49 seats, Tautua Samoa Party won two seats, and one seat was won by an independent candidate. As there were only four seats won by women, the fifth one was appointed, taking the total number of members to 50.

Whilst HRPP has politically dominated the country for decades, criticism of the government has been growing in recent years, including its handling of the 2019 measles outbreak, from which more than 80 people died. In March 2020, shortly before the country went into a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, three since adopted bills were introduced that plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. The Land and Titles Bill 2020, the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020 andthe Judicature Bill 2020 were widely criticised for undermining the independence of the judiciary and turning the Land Titles Court into a stand-alone court (see KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot #14/20 – Wakelet). In March 2021, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) expressed concern about the freedom of press in Samoa, saying journalists were under pressure by the government after reporting a perceived conflict of interest caused by retainer agreements between the government and Attorney General’s former law firm. In response, the Attorney General alleged that the documents in question could only have been obtained by hacking her office’s email system, and threatened a criminal investigation into the matter.

In the 2021 election campaign, the government faced the biggest challenge ever to its decade long rule, mounted by the new FAST Party. Founded by former HRPP MP and speaker, Laauli Leuatea Polataivao Schmidt, the party is led by former HRPP MP and deputy prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mataafa. Ms Mataafa is the daughter of Samoa’s first prime minister, Mata’afa Fiame Faumuina Mulinu’u II, who governed the country after the island nation gained independence from New Zealand in 1962. Her title is said to be one of the highest in Samoa, earning her widespread respect and an almost inevitable pathway into politics. She did, however, not automatically inherit her father’s title but had to secure it through court proceedings. Fiame Naomi Mataafa is the second women to lead a political party in Samoa, following one of her aunts, Matatumua Maimoana Vermullen, who founded and led the Samoa All People’s party in the 1980s. Both Ms Mataafa and Mr Schmidt left HRRP last year due to their opposition to the aforementioned legislation. In the run up to the election, FAST’s party leader, deputy leader and other MPs ran an unprecedented election roadshow. Their absence from parliament – purportedly with the Speaker’s consent – triggered PM Malielegaoi to call for a Commission of Enquiry for alleged treason and breach of parliamentary rules.

The Samoan diaspora (estimated at 125,000) is said to have had a huge influence in the lead up to the election, be it by fundraising, campaigning or trying otherwise to influence how their relatives in Samoa are voting. Samoa’s state of emergency and related border closures meant that Samoans living abroad were unable to return to their home country. One of the FAST party’s policies would allow Samoans living overseas to vote without having to return to the country.

While pre-polls suggested that FAST could pose a serious opposition to the ruling HRP Party, the preliminary tie achieved by the new party’s 52 candidates compared to the ruling parties more than 100 candidates comes as a surprise. The election reportedly featured 21 female candidates – down from 24 in the 2016 general election (Samoa Observer, 19 March). Four women (plus the FAST party leader) would make it to the new Parliament, if the preliminary election results were confirmed (RNZ, 11 April).

According to the Electoral Commission, it may take up to two weeks before the official count is handed down.