Samoan politics at critical juncture: expert

Samoa is at a critical point in its history and Opposition parties and candidates are benefiting from a groundswell of discontent in the ruling Human Rights Protection Party, says a Samoan political expert.

Dr Iati Iati – who is a Senior Lecturer (Politics and International Relations) at the Victoria University of Wellington – highlighted in an email response to the Samoa Observer the impact of former deputy prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa’s resignation from the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.), her collaboration with the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party, the role of the Samoan diaspora in politics and the regional standing of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi.

He said Fiame’s exit from the ruling party occured at a critical point in Samoan politics, but she will continue to enjoy political support due to her long career in politics and membership in the HRPP as well as her standing in traditional circles and her father’s legacy.

Attempts by the HRPP led Government to also curtail the influence of the Samoan diaspora in politics were futile, with Dr Iati emphasising how they continue to be “active participants” in a lot of family and community activities.

“Through family ties, they are active participants in local (aiga, nuú etc.) issues and make important contributions through remittances,” he states in his email. “This discontentment was most evident in the rise of online political activity, exemplified by the O.L.P. movement, and has found benefactors, champions, and beneficiaries on the national political stage at home. 

“The Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) political party is, obviously, benefitting from this groundswell of discontentment.”

The rise in discontentment in the current Government could open the door to a seasoned politician such as Fiame, according to Dr Iati, as she prepares to take on the excesses of HRPP power.

“So Fiame not only has the political credentials to garner political support, but her arrival on the opposition side could not have come at a better time for her, and those who are discontented with Government policies, practices and personalities.”

The decision by the Lotofaga M.P. to team up with the F.A.S.T. party would also be beneficial for both the party and the former H.R.P.P. Member of Parliament, adds Dr Iati. 

“Fiame will benefit from having a ready and willing set of allies in the F.A.S.T. party, she's leaving an established party but walking into one that is on the rise. 

“I don't know the background details about her relationship with the leadership of the F.A.S.T. party, but they will obviously find common ground in challenging the H.R.P.P.”

Dr Iati said even if friendship and common policies are not the basis of their relationship, they at least have a common enemy in the ruling party.

“Conversely, Fiame is going to add much needed validity and support to the F.A.S.T. party and political opposition in general. 

“Given all of this, it's fair to say that the fracturing of the H.R.P.P. and the rise of a credible Opposition, which we have not seen for a long time, will both be driven by and reflected in the Samoan political community.”

However, Dr Iati threw caution to the wind and emphasised that he was not predicting a H.R.P.P. loss in the April general election.

“This community will be divided in ways and to a depth that we haven't seen before, the days of a dominant H.R.P.P. may be behind us. 

“And let me make this clear, I'm not predicting an H.R.P.P. loss, and neither am I taking sides. “I'm simply interested in the general direction that Samoan politics is going in given Fiame's resignation and subsequent political moves within opposition circles.”

The debate over the demise of the ruling party will also trigger questions about the future of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, who has now clocked 23 years as Prime Minister.

 Tuilaepa has a big footprint in terms of Samoa’s relations with Pacific states and the world with  Dr Iati asking if there is a successor, in light of Fiame’s resignation from the ruling party last year.

“For the past couple of decades Tuilaepa has been the face of Samoa's foreign relations,” he said. “There's obviously talk about when Tuilaepa might retire, and who might succeed him.

“When Fiame was with the H.R.P.P. there was speculation among some within foreign policy circles that she was the heir apparent, particularly given her credentials and her standing in the region.

“Regardless of how he is viewed in domestic politics, he is highly regarded in regional politics, and among New Zealand and Australian leadership. 

“This is understandable, Tuilaepa is one of if not the most senior regional statesmen, and has been at the forefront of key regional developments, such as the formation of the Polynesian Leaders Group and the Blue Pacific identity or narrative.”

Australia and New Zealand hold Tuilaepa in high regard, according to Dr Iati, as he is a strong proponent of the neo-liberal good-governance agenda that entered the region in the early 1990s And he has been a stout defender of Australia and New Zealand at the Pacific Islands Forum, as exemplified in mid-2010, when he rebutted calls by Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama for Australia and New Zealand to be kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

“At the same time, Tuilaepa has not been afraid to critique the regional hegemon's treatment of the region, particularly in relation to issues of sovereignty, autonomy and who Pacific Island countries should have as their friends. In relation to this, Tuilaepa has strengthened Samoa-China relations," added Dr. Iati.

Tuilaepa’s retirement from politics will leave a big hole with Dr. Iati noting that there were those in some quarters who entertained the idea of Fiame stepping in.

“His eventual departure will leave some big shoes to fill, and as I mentioned earlier, some have entertained the idea, perhaps even hope, that Fiame would be that person. 

“Fiame is well acquainted with regional politics, and will probably have her own network of friends and allies. 

“A succession of leadership within the H.R.P.P. would have been the most straightforward way for her to step into Tuilaepa's shoes, but this was not guaranteed, and there are any number of H.R.P.P. members coveting that position.”

Nonetheless Dr Iati says Fiame’s exit from the ruling party last year should not impact Tuilaepa’s role in the region, though there are others who would see things differently. 

“So Fiame's departure should not have an impact on Tuilaepa's place and leadership role within the region. 

“However, there will be parties who will have an interest in this move and her chances of taking a leadership role in the region.”

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