Making history: Fiame Naomi Mata'afa
On 9 April this year voters took to the polls in a historic general election, which changed the country’s political landscape after 40 years and for the first time saw the election of Samoa’s first female Prime Minister.
The election of the longtime Lotofaga M.P. and Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party leader Fiame Naomi Mata’afa as Samoa’s sixth Prime Minister also led to the exit of one of the world’s longest serving heads of government.
Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi had been in power for a record 22 years as prime minister and prior to the massive losses suffered by his Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) at the April 2021 election, also lengthened his party’s record of being the longest-serving in Samoa to clock four decades in public office.
But over two decades of political stability under Tuilaepa’s leadership, cemented by donor partner-supported key infrastructure projects which gifted Samoa with modern roads and bridges and an international airport, the H.R.P.P. government’s decades-long achievements appeared to be a distant memory for a lot of the country’s voters.
Fifteen months prior to the election, the country came out from a measles epidemic that claimed 83 lives. But with the emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic in early 2020, local authorities declared another state of emergency (S.O.E.) in March of that year which led to the reintroduction of restrictions.
L.T.C. Bills leads to party exit
A month later the Samoa Observer broke the story on a H.R.P.P. government proposal to amend Samoa’s Constitution to create an independent Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) outside the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
The newspaper’s publishing of a confidential letter dated 6 April 2020 to the Executive Director of Samoa’s Law Reform Commission, signed by a number of District Court and Supreme Court Judges, signaled the start of an eight-month campaign led by the Samoa Law Society against the proposed legislation. The campaign also garnered support from local and international lawyers and former judges, eminent jurists, human rights organisations and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In September 2020 Fiame resigned as the deputy prime minister and minister for natural resources and environment and exited the then ruling party, saying she cannot continue being part of the H.R.P.P. Administration due to her opposition to the L.T.C. Bills.
She became an Independent M.P. after her resignation from the party with her exit bringing to an end her long association with the party.
Six months after exiting the H.R.P.P. to become an Independent M.P. and a month before the general elections, Fiame joined the F.A.S.T. with the new party later announcing that the former deputy prime minister will lead them into the general election.
Two weeks before polling on 9 April 2021 the new party released its manifesto containing its election promises which focused on the thematic areas of human development, sustainable economy, secure environment-trusted governance and public works and infrastructure.
The F.A.S.T. leadership also vowed in January 2021 that it would revisit and challenge the L.T.C. Bills that were rushed through the parliament and passed on 15 December 2020 and assented into law by the Head of State on 5 January 2021.
The L.T.C. Acts formed the core of the party’s campaign strategy with concerns revolving around the laws’ impact on customary land rights, the matai and the aiga (family) which together with other issues featured prominently in F.A.S.T. roadshows in villages on both Upolu and Savai’i in the lead-up to polling.
F.A.S.T. outshines rival in election
At the conclusion of the counting of the ballots from the 9 April 2021 General Election, it became obvious that the Fiame-led F.A.S.T. had outmanoeuvred archrival H.R.P.P. in a major election boilover in decades.
Having dominated the last XVI Parliament with its M.P.s occupying over 40 of the 51-seats, expectations were high within the H.R.P.P. that another landslide victory was on the cards. However, its losses became clear during counting with the final results seeing the party tie with the F.A.S.T. on 25-seats each.
Eleven days after the election Independent M.P. Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio pledged his support to the new party, the Office of Electoral Commission (O.E.C.) overturned its decision on the finalisation of the electoral results and invoked constitutional provisions on women representation, to appoint defeated H.R.P.P. woman candidate Aliimalemanu Moti Moemoemausu Alofa Tuuau new Member-elect. Nonetheless both parties with the addition of Tuala and Aliimalemanu remained tied on 26 seats each.
What followed next was unprecedented in Samoan history: the Head of State, His Highness Tuimaleali’ifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II declared the results of the 9 April General Election void and ordered fresh elections by 21 May 2021.
This led to multiple Supreme Court hearings after F.A.S.T. went to court and the overturning of the decision by the O.E.C. to appoint Aliimalemanu. Despite the Court’s intervention the Head of State suspended the 24 May 2021 swearing-in of the XVII Legislative Assembly Members, in breach of a Supreme Court order.
The absence of the Head of State and the Clerk of Parliament on the afternoon of Monday 24 May 2021, to oversee the swearing-in of Samoa’s new legislators, did not dissuade the F.A.S.T. whose lawyers invoked the ‘principle of necessity’ to swear-in their Members-elect. Another round of Supreme Court hearings then followed with the H.R.P.P. this time seeking the Court’s interpretation of the 24 May 2021 swearing-in of all F.A.S.T. Members.
The Court referred the matter to the Court of Appeal. On 23 July 2021 Samoa’s High Court ruled that the 24 May 2021 swearing-in was lawful and constitutional, thereby confirming the legitimacy of the F.A.S.T. as Samoa’s new Government and the appointment of Fiame as the new Prime Minister of Samoa.
A Prime Minister in waiting
But the foundations of Fiame’s path to the highest political office in the land were laid long before the drums of the 2021 General Election began to beat.
Born in 1957 into one of Samoa’s leading chieftaincy families, her father Mataʻafa Faumuina Mulinuʻu II was the first prime minister of Samoa and mother, La'ulu Fetauimalemau Mata'afa the second Samoan woman to be elected to parliament, as the Lotofaga M.P. following the death of her husband in 1975.
In 1985 Fiame entered Samoan politics through her parents’ former seat of Lotofaga and became a trailblazer in politics, becoming the country’s first female cabinet minister with the education portfolio under the Tofilau government as well as stints as the minister for women community and social development and justice and courts administration.
In 2016 she became the first female deputy prime minister in the Tuilaepa government, on top of being the portfolio minister for natural resources and environment, until she resigned from the H.R.P.P. government in September 2020 in protest at the L.T.C. Bills.
Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, Nanai Dr. Iati Iati, told the Samoa Observer in May 2021 that Fiame’s exit from the H.R.P.P. and the then government in September 2020 was a “critical point” in Samoa’s history.
There is broad consensus amongst political pundits that the F.A.S.T. would not have been successful in the April 2021 General Election without the former deputy prime minister and Lotofaga M.P. at the helm.
There was also discussion on whether gender empowerment and the attraction of voting Samoa’s “first female prime minister” appealed to Samoan voters, which translated into the historical victory for the F.A.S.T. in the April 2021 election.
But Nanai disagreed with the proposition and told a political discussion roundtable at the Victoria University, three weeks after the 9 April 2021 poll, that Fiame should be recognised on her own merits and not necessarily for her gender.
"I don't think that's the way Fiame saw it. I think the gender issue is important, but shouldn't be overplayed,” Nanai said.
"Fiame, when asked by the [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] what it would mean to her to become Samoa's First Female Prime Minister, she said, 'I hope no different to any other Prime Minister.'
"I think that's a very valid perspective to take into account.
"Fiame needs to be recognised and acknowledged for the merits that she has not on her gender.
“We would take a lot from her own position right now and say that we just voted her in because she's a woman.
"But you know Fiame has a very deep political pedigree, her father was the first Prime Minister of Samoa, she has been with the H.R.P.P. for as long as anyone can remember, she has her own regional standing, she is well-recognised among regional leaders, internationally, she is recognised.
"So I don't want to take anything away from what Fiame has achieved by saying she was voted in because she is a woman.
"I don't think that's the case, and I don't think Fiame sees that as the case.
"Now, she stands on her own two feet, as someone who has accomplished her way to the position she is right now."
Five months after the Court of Appeal ruled that the 24 May 2021 swearing-in of F.A.S.T. Members including Fiame’s were lawful and constitutional, the country’s voters went back to the polls in November 2021 for seven by-elections to complete this year’s tumultuous electoral cycle.
The F.A.S.T. party’s overwhelming victory in securing five of the seven seats was a vote of confidence by the Samoan electorate in the leadership of Prime Minister Fiame, putting to bed any doubts about her ability to lead.