A fierce power struggle is underway in Polynesia’s tiny Samoa state ahead of the next general election on April 9.
The election results in the central Pacific island nation of about 199,000 inhabitants, located northeast of Fiji, for more than 20 years, have been predictable. With little opposition, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi led the Human Rights Defense Party (HRPP) to victory in every five-year vote since 1998. The party itself has been in power for almost 40 years. .
Malielegaoi, 75 years old this year, has been in power for 23 years and is one of the longest serving leaders in the region and in the world.
But this time, heated outcry emerged with new parties and candidates with intention to change at the top level.
“Thinking back to 2011 and 2016, the mood is very different,” said Renate Rivers, an editor at the local newspaper, Samoa Observer.
“We find that more and more people feel encouraged to speak openly about the policies or candidates they support or disapprove of. Samoa also hasn’t had a formal opposition party for five years, so it certainly sounds like an awakening for many to realize that they actually have other options for the upcoming election, ”she said. with Al Jazeera.
The biggest challenge comes from the newly formed FAST coalition of the three parties, the Fa’inoana i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi Party (FAST), the Samoa National Democratic Party and the Tumua ma Puleono Party.
The leader of FAST is former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who resigned from government and HRPP, of which she has been a member for more than 30 years, last September.
A senior politician, patriarch and daughter of the country’s first post-Independence Prime Minister Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, she became Samoa’s first female cabinet in 1991 and was deputy prime minister in 2016.
Her defection, after she rejected the controversial new law she believed would worsen corruption, was preceded by a heated public exchange with Malielegaoi in which he charged her. treason and she accused the ruling party of abusing power.
‘Not any better’
“HRPP has been around for 40 years. With a population of less than 200,000, we should at least have a good way of life, since we have external debt of 1.2 billion dollars, but the country is not getting any better under HRPP’s watch. ”An FAST spokesman told Al Jazeera. We had 100 people killed due to government carelessness and carelessness in handling it measles epidemic in 2019. Rampant corruption with large contracts awarded to companies closely related to cabinet ministers, and authoritarianism, as we have a prime minister and his son The head of finance and his son-in-law are the chief auditor ”.
Samoa, a former German colony, was occupied by New Zealand and then administered by New Zealand from 1914 until independence in 1962.
It is a parliamentary democracy, although modern political leadership is closely linked with the “matais”, the indigenous gens of the country, who wield great power over the tribes. the fields of family welfare, land, property, religion, and politics. Until 1990, only matais could vote and run as an electoral candidate. Candidates for the majority of seats in the 51-seat Legislative Assembly still had to hold the matai title, but by the end of the last century voting had been extended to all citizens aged 21 and over.
On Friday, 128,848 voters went to the polls to choose from 189 candidates, of which more than 20 are women. HRPP, which holds the majority of seats in parliament, has the most candidates with 105. The FAST coalition comes in second with 52, while other parties, such as the Tatua Samoa Party and Samoa First Party, have respectively. is 14 and 5.
The ruling party’s promises include more infrastructure development and it is competing with the FAST coalition on commitments to improve outcomes for education and hospital services. Malielegaoi is confident of his victory again this year but journalist Rivers, believes the party is relying on “public gratitude to vote for the work completed since they took power”.
This includes changing the use of roads in the island nation from right to left in 2009 and changing international date lines in 2011 to boost the economy and trade with Australasia and Asia. That same year, it was instrumental in strengthening subregional cooperation with the creation of the Polynesian Leadership Group.
HRPP was approached for comment on the election but did not respond.
Issues important to voters can include jobs and pandemic.
“Samoa is in economic trouble because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is currently in a period of recession and the closure of the border has hampered income from tourism, while also slowing our seasonal job arrangements. On the ground, many small businesses are struggling to survive, ”says Rivers.
Samoa has a gross domestic product or GDP of $ 4,324 per capita, a relatively high share for the region. But before the pandemic, an estimated 20.3% of the population lived below the national poverty line and the unemployment rate was around 14.5%, according to the World Bank.
Another burning issue could be the controversy of the government when it passed the new land and title Court last year, the Constitution Amendment and the Judiciary Bill. Critics argue that these laws give too much power to the executive and by enhancing the power of the Land-granting Court and new titles, which favor customary law, undermine the Supreme Court’s capabilities. in combating abuse of power.
Mata’afa, acting in line with her election stance, Lotofaga, turned down all three last year.
The FAST Party is now making a promise to “restore and maintain the rule of law like the previous government and HRPP has broken the judicial system by forming two separate courts undermining the role of the Supreme Court and independence of the judiciary, “according to its spokesperson.
Voter turnout is likely to be high, but other factors will affect ballot box behavior, such as family loyalty and support of the expat community.
“In Samoan politics, you have fairly small constituencies where voters know candidates because they are family members, or belong to the same church or village,” Kerryn Baker said. These personal connections tend to be much more important than party policy, a member of the Pacific political field at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs.
The huge expat community, estimated at more than half of the country’s resident population, can also exert considerable pressure.
Rivers said many Samoa living in Australia, New Zealand and the United States were supporters of the opposition. “They have largely funded the opposition campaign and launched a very successful social media campaign against the rhetoric of the ruling party,” she said.
The return of texts for Samoa’s next 17th Parliament will take place on 23 April.