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Samoa's historic election saga comes down to Supreme Court ruling

Experts see nation, and Pacific women, on cusp of new era regardless of outcome

Samoa opposition leader Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, pictured in April, is vying to become the island's first female prime minister.   © AFP/Jiji

HONG KONG -- The political winds of change are blowing in Samoa, as voters anxiously await a Supreme Court decision that will likely determine if they head back to the polls on May 21.

The island nation's April 9 election pitted one of the world's longest-serving prime ministers, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, against former deputy Fiame Naomi Mata'afa -- a challenger who could become the country's first female leader. Her opposition party was on track to win with a one-seat majority, until electoral officials handed the ruling party an additional seat to meet female representation requirements, leading to a tie at 26 seats each.

Then the head of state, Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II, called a second election earlier this month, rendering the first void on advice of the prime minister, who argued it is necessary to break the deadlock.

The opposition party contends that a fresh election breaches the constitution and that there are established protocols for a tie -- sending the case to the Supreme Court, which is now expected to decide on Monday.

If the court rules against holding a new election, it would open the way for several other pending challenges, including one questioning the additional unelected female representation seat.

Such dramatic political twists are uncommon in Samoa, which has functioned as a one-party democracy with the same government for close to 40 years. But last month's election has stirred lively political debate as well as concern around what critics say are increasingly undemocratic overtures from the current government.

Prominent Samoan journalist Mata'afa Keni Lesa said depending on which side voters supported, the mood on the ground is still one of excitement and suspense. "Excitement at the possibility of change," he said. "Suspense in the sense these overnight developments are keeping everyone on their toes."

He added that "there is also confusion now and frustration at the delays in forming a government."

The island nation, which was administered by New Zealand from 1914 to 1962 before gaining independence, has a population of 200,000, while close to 500,000 Samoans live in New Zealand. Samoans living overseas are ineligible to vote, as election law requires voters be in the country for six months prior to an election.

Either way, all eyes are on the clash between the two party leaders and their starkly different leaders.

Tuilaepa, who took office in 1998 and whose Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in power since 1982, has drawn on the image of a spiritual battle calling the opposition the "devil." He has said that he was "appointed by god" to lead the country, and that the judiciary does not have authority over his appointment, according to local media.

Tuilaepa's comments followed protests directed at him outside the Supreme Court.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, pictured on a visit to London in 2018, has run the country since 1998.   © Reuters

Kerryn Baker, a research fellow in Pacific politics at Australian National University, described him as "an extraordinary political figure."

"He doesn't come from a political background or a high chiefly family, but he has proven incredibly savvy at maintaining power within the HRPP," she said. While other politicians in Samoa have been embroiled in controversies, "he has largely kept his hands clean over his political career."

The HRPP has a track record of winning consistently high majorities in elections. In 2016 it won 94% of the seats, Baker pointed out, adding there has not been a tradition of strong opposition in politics in Samoa "until now."

While Lesa said the prime minister has done a lot of good developing Samoa's reputation regionally and globally, "it's impossible to have someone sit at the prime ministership chair for that long and not expect the challenges we are facing today, especially with the use and abuse of powers."

In an interview with the Samoa Observer this month, Tuilaepa said he was considering a temporary shutdown of Facebook, saying unfounded information had hampered the public's decision-making. Hours later, in a statement posted to Facebook, he claimed this was "fake news."

The HRPP has also been accused of mishandling a deadly measles outbreak in 2019, and of undermining judicial independence following the introduction of three controversial bills last year, including a constitution amendment.

In addition, there are concerns about state-of-emergency travel restrictions remaining in place despite no active cases of COVID-19 being present. The rules have meant voters are unable to return.

Fiame, meanwhile, leads the newcomer Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (FAST) party, founded in June 2020. She is lauded as a groundbreaker, having become Samoa's first female cabinet minister in 1991, and her family has deep roots in Samoan politics.

Baker described Fiame as an outlier with "incredible lineage in terms of being the daughter of a paramount chief and the first prime minister of Samoa, and she has had such a long career in politics in a system where few women are elected and even fewer are then re-elected."

Her success leading FAST is important, not just in Samoa but in the whole Pacific region, according to Baker. "Women across the region are watching Samoan politics very closely right now," she said.

Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea, adjunct professor from the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa, said that in addition to her political heritage, Fiame is an excellent communicator, able to cut through jargon to help the general public understand complex issues.

"She focuses on issues," Meleisea said, rather than personalities, calling her effective in questioning the ethics and legality of the actions of the current government.

Regardless of the Supreme Court outcome this week, the election has ruffled feathers and is likely to set the tone for campaigns to come.

"Right now Samoans who are 40 years [old] and less have not known of another government," Meleisea said. "A lot of them equate HRRP with government, and are afraid that if HRRP is gone there will not be a government."

He called the tight race "good for democracy in Samoa" and the court challenge "a severe test of our constitution."

Lesa said change has been a long time coming.

"The writing has been on the wall, and sadly for the HRPP, they have been their worst enemies given the amount of rope they had to play with," he said. "Fiame, when she showed courage and conviction to walk away [from the party], was the last push needed before the developments we are seeing today. And I think we are on the horizon of a new dawn in Samoa, with Fiame the face of it."

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