Overseas Samoans' election influence under the microscope

How much overseas Samoans influence this Friday's election results will be a top research priority for the political historian, Adjunct Professor Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisa, this year. 

The head of the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa said he and his colleagues are carving out a framework for research into just how much family and friends in the diaspora have managed to influence the election, despite not having voting rights themselves. 

In particular, Leasiolagi is interested in whether overseas party donations will translate into votes at the end of the final day of voting on Friday.

The Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party has collected more than $1.6 million from mostly overseas donors, as local businesses mostly snubbed the opposition party, it was revealed last month.

“It’s a new area and it’s good to try and look into it, at least speculate about what happened,” he said.

The election is of particular interest to researchers as for the first time in a long time, there is a large opposition party vying for power and seeking to unseat the Government. 

Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) is less than one year old but has already claimed one seat in the next Parliament, that of its leader Fiame Naomi Mata’afa whose Lotofaga seat went uncontested.

The party is acutely aware of its growing overseas supporter groups, who send money, buy fundraising t-shirts and hold events in its name in New Zealand, Australia, and further afield.

“This whole idea of the diaspora contributing a lot of money for F.A.S.T. for example, I don’t know how much diaspora is contributing to H.R.P.P. or any other party but whether that much money is going to influence the families of those who gave it here in Samoa, it’s a hard thing to say,” Leasiolagi said.

After the elections he intends to launch research into how much sway the diaspora had on their families and what that impact looked like, the Professor said.

He said increased use of social media and the presence of a viable opposition are two major distinctions between this election and the 2016 national poll.

La'auli Leautea Schmidt formed Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) in July last year after being kicked out of the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.); he handily won a by-election last August. 

La'auli was soon joined by another H.R.P.P. dissident, Faumuina Wayne Fong, and the independent M.P., Olo Fiti Vaai. But in its biggest political triumph, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, formally overtook the party's leadership this March, after Parliament was dissolved. 

F.A.S.T. has created a wave of support amongst the Samoan for the 2021 election, something reflected not just in fundraising figures but, reportedly, in seeking to influence family members back home. 

“I really think, although I have got no way of telling, that the influence of families overseas through their families here would probably be an interesting subject,” Leasiolagi said.

“I think the fact that they have $1.6 million collected from overseas, it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to speculate that those people who sent the money are probably also asking their families to vote for the people they sent their money too, whether it’s H.R.P.P. or F.A.S.T..    

“We’d have to be very careful about how we decide the framework around which we can find out.”

Under the current Electoral Act, Samoans overseas, regardless of how long they have been out of the country, are unable to place their votes unless they are in the country.

It’s an issue that has members of the diaspora worried they are being excluded from having a say in their country’s development, especially those who are stranded because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During her campaign against three controversial laws that passed last December and changed the makeup of the country's courts and judiciary, Fiame actively called upon the diaspora to talk to their families about political issues.

In overseas interviews about the then-bills, which amended the constitution and created an independent Land and Titles Court, Fiame encouraged overseas Samoans to ask their local families to their local M.P.s about the legislation. 

“I think the role of the media and television and radio has been a lot stronger this election than last election,” Leasiolagi said.

“That’s another factor, the way political parties are using these avenues to get their messages across. 

“There was no E.F.K.S. T.V. last time for example, and that station is particularly strongly anti-government for all sorts of reasons.

“That could also backfire. It’s hard to determine without doing a survey but we hope we can do that after the election.”

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