Samoa's election: Democratic progress or facade?

By Dr Christina Laalaai-Tausa

The democratisation paradigm in the Pacific is an ongoing topic of discussion within the political arena. It is a significant point of debate and analysis at the local, regional and international level.

For Samoa, its 2021 election results seem to have indicated a seismic shift in the evolution of its democracy. But is the change real or a facade?

What happened?

The Samoan people went to the polls on April 9 to decide on who would lead the country for a five-year term.

The incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) were hopeful of securing fourth decade in power, led by Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi who was seeking his 23rd year as prime minister.

Seeking to unseat the government were parties including Tautua, Samoa First, Samoa National Democratic Party (SNDP), and FAST (Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi). FAST was led by former HRPP member Laaulialemalietoa Polataivao Schmidt and was later joined by three other former HRPP members, including Fiame Naomi Mata'afa who currently leads the party and could be Samoa’s first female Prime Minister in its 60-year-old democracy.

This year’s election saw 128,848 people over the age of 21 register to cast their vote for the 51 seats in parliament, reflective of the 51 electoral constituencies in the country. An analysis of the polling results shows that 69% voted while 30% failed to have their voice heard, despite four days of pre-polling prior to the actual election day.

Fiame Naomi Mata'afa smiles
Fiame Naomi Mata'afa was Samoa's first female deputy prime minister. Pic: UN Women in Asia and the Pacific/Flickr

People threw support behind two major parties. HRPP received 38% of the votes and the newly-formed FAST party racked up 25%, while 6% was split between Tautua, other smaller parties and independent candidates.

The numbers indicate that although there was strong and effective campaigning, particularly from the FAST party, there was still scepticism heading into the election, with many perhaps believing that HRPP could never be challenged.

As the country awaited results on Friday April 9, preliminary results revealed a deadlock with HRPP winning 25 seats from the 105 candidates that were fielded and FAST with 25 seats from their 52 candidates, with 15 of them from the 20 constituencies in Savaii - Samoa's largest island.

To the shock of many, this event challenged the dominance of the HRPP and created electoral history in the country. While locked at 25 seats each, to achieve a majority and its 51 members both parties needed one more seat, which came in the form of an independent member who became kingmaker.

For over a week, which party Tuala Ponifasio would choose to align himself with was the intense focus of Samoan politics. But the announcement of his decision to join FAST, which would have meant victory for Fiame Naomi Mata'afa and FAST, was nixed. The Samoa Electoral Commission issued a notice signed by the head of state announcing the addition of a six female member of parliament, stating that the constitution requires 10% female representation in parliament to be fulfilled, despite five female members having won their seats already.

Samoa was thus plunged into a second deadlock, where it remains while the case is in the hands of the Supreme Court, pending a ruling on whether the appointment was legal and within the parameters of the constitution.

But in another bizarre twist, on the eve of the court ruling, the head of state announced that due to public disquiet and the political impasse, Samoa was required to return to the polls for a fresh election, robbing Samoa for the second time within a month of its democracy. A second election is supposed to be held on May 21.

Samoa's PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi speaks at a lectern
Samoa's PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is keen to cling onto power. Pic: Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr

Unfortunately, with this call, cracks within Samoa’s democratic system became visible. The announcement not only revokes the results of the first round of elections, but also undermines the people’s democratic ambitions and also pre-empts the decision of the Supreme Court - an arm of government and an institution that has on a number of occasions provided justice for electoral petitions.

With the attorney general appealing to the court to discontinue the case brought by FAST, it is not hard to see the political interference and engineering that is taking place. There is a visible trend where Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who is caretaker prime minister, continues to move the goalposts and even politicise the judiciary in order to remain in power. He said this week that he had been "appointed by god" to lead Samoa.

With such actions we see the inability of Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi to stay out of legal processes, adhere to the separation of powers and conform to the rule of law.

Why another election?

The actions by the caretaker prime minister and the twists and turns over the past four weeks involving top government officials and the head of state conveys to the people that he refuses to step down.

His tactics show that he will not concede defeat and more concerning, that he is willing to do anything at any length to hold on to power. Interestingly, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi and the HRPP have done their homework this time around and know that a new election is to their advantage. With their 110 candidates eligible for all 51 constituencies versus FAST’s 52 candidates eligible for only 43 constituencies, HRPP stand to win a majority with fresh elections.

This is exactly why there is now pressure for a snap election, because it allows the caretaker government to capitalise on an unusual opportunity (which the deadlock has provided for Samoa) and given that they will now move to eliminate multiple candidates for each constituency and only field one, this will increase their majority.

However, it is not uncommon for snap elections to be counterproductive for incumbents. It can also provide an opportunity for another party to win the popular vote and gain power. The opposition campaign has kicked off with protests outside the Supreme Court calling for the prime minister to await the court's decision and to step down.

Only time will tell what will happen next. If the events in Samoa over the past four weeks are anything to go by, we are in for more political drama.

Christina Laalaai-Tausa holds a PhD in political science from Massey University. Her thesis was entitled “Conflicting power paradigms in Samoa’s democracy: From tension to a process of harmonization”.

Banner image: Parliament of Samoa


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