13 Apr 2021

Samoa's cliff-hanger election: what's behind the challenge to the ruling party

11:09 am on 13 April 2021

Following a tied interim election count, Samoa is waiting to find out whether its longest-serving prime minister will be returned or a new era of government will begin.

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, left, and Fiame Naomi Mata'afa

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, left, and Fiame Naomi Mata'afa Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tipi Autagavaia

Provisional results over the weekend put the governing Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) and the newly-formed Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) in a tie, with each holding 25 of the 51 parliamentary seats, and independent candidate Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio holding the final seat.

The final and official count started on Monday.

This count, and the inevitable horse-trading which follows, will determine which of these two political parties will govern for the next five years.

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi started in the public service after completing a Masters in Commerce degree, then entered politics in 1981, becoming Finance Minister in the 1990s and prime minister in 1998. He held both roles until 2001.

Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, formerly a member of HRPP, was was Samoa's first female cabinet minister and from 2016 to 2020 served as the country's first female deputy prime minister. Fiame is the daughter of Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II, Samoa's first prime minister following independence. The FAST party she leads was formed just eight months ago.

Unprecendented challenge to ruling party

The HRPP party has been in power for nearly four decades. As well as electorate fatigue, several controversies and high-profile failures have damaged its image with the Samoan public.

The government's mishandling of the 2019 measles epidemic drew widespread criticism. Public anger grew considerably particularly after it was revealed that the government had not heeded the advice of its own public servants in 2018 and 2019 to launch a mass vaccination campaign. In late 2019 the measles epidemic killed 83 people, many of whom were children and infants.

Continued Covid-19 restrictions and the economic downturn and unemployment from the collapse of the tourism industry which accompanied them] have also fed the desire for change.

The ruling party also felt the heat of public dissent over controversial legislation which has the combined effect of making key changes to the way in which land disputes are resolved. Currently about 80 percent of all land in Samoa is in customary ownership, and the constitution places an absolute bar on the sale of customary land.

Three bills, passed into law December last year, grant the Land and Titles Courts (LTC) sole power to determine matters of land ownership according to Samoan customary law, and give the court its own appellate structure and be separate from and beyond the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Opponents were concerned that the removal of the Supreme Court's jurisdiction and oversight would grant fono (village councils) power to make decisions without any possible redress for human rights breaches.

FAST has harnessed this dissatisfaction and said it would seek to repeal the three controversial bills (though a two-thirds majority of the house is needed).

It has also called for moratorium on church ministers paying tax on offerings from their congregations.

The new party has also campaigned on making it easier for Samoan citizens living abroad to vote in elections.

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has campaigned on the strength of the developments his government has been responsible for since it came into power, and its plans to continue education and healthcare improvements, and infrastructure projects.

These include development plans for Salelologa on Savai'i, the bigger island; a new hospital and a Referral Health Centre, a centre to house all the government ministries and the establishment a branch of the National University of Samoa.

Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, the independent candidate who could hold the balance of power, is a lawyer, businessman and president of the Samoan Returned Services Association. He has run in every Samoan election since 2006.

The Samoa Electoral Commission shows electoral officials monitoring the counting during the general election in the capital city of Apia.

Electoral officials monitoring the count in the capital, Apia. Photo: AFP or licensors

Samoa's electoral process

For the first time this election, voting began with pre-polling for people in special categories. Essential service workers, people with disabilities, and those aged over 65 were able to vote before the polls opened on 9 April.

A total of 128,848 people registered for the general election with 8000 expected to use the pre-polling arrangement. By 11pm on Sunday, the early votes had been counted in the presence of official scrutineers.

Provisional results over the weekend had the HRPP and FAST parties tied each at 25 seats in the 51 seat parliament with independent candidate Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio likely to have the deciding vote.

Samoa operates under a first-past-the-post voting system, with the highest polling candidate elected, and the elected government serves for five years. The voting age is 21.

In a special programme aired on social media Sunday night, the eve of the final count, Electoral Commissioner Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio urged patience and said the provisional numbers were bound to change after the official count.

Regardless of the outcome, this election has involved the most serious challenge to the HRPP's domination of Samoan politics in its 40-year history. Change, in one form or another, seems inevitable.

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