By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Samoa, a small island nation in the Pacific, is home to one of the world’s longest-serving state leader, Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi and one of the world’s longest-serving party in power (since 1982), the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP). In this year’s elections that took place in April, he faced a challenging opponent: Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, his former deputy prime minister. Fiame recently took on leadership of the newly formed opposition part Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (“faith in one true god”) (FAST party) and contested against the prime minister who has held his position for 23 years now. Fiame Naomi and the FAST party allege that they won the election that was held in April fair and square but Tuila’epa contends otherwise and is refusing to relinquish his position.
Women in Samoan Politics and History
From pre-colonial times to anti-colonial struggles to the present, women have always been crucial stakeholders and actors in Samoan politics and history, even if it is in indirect ways or even if their stories are not told. Samoan women played a significant role in their nationalist movement, the Mau, by organising peaceful protests against the colonial administration run by New Zealand. They organised anti-colonial movements and demonstrations and demanded and independent government based on Samoan traditional institutions. These women braved against resistance from the colonisers as well as local men and religious leaders who advised them to stick to their roles as mothers, caretakers and village peacekeepers. Their efforts contributed to Samoa becoming the first nation in the South Pacific to achieve independence and sovereignty in 1962.
Samoa’s parliamentary democracy system is closely linked to its traditional indigenous chiefly system wherein only chiefs, known as matai, are eligible to run for parliament and exert significant influence in their communities’ economic, social and political life. Women face immense structural barriers to become matai title holders and less than 5% of matai positions are currently occupied by women. 19 villages across the countries still do not recognise women to be matai. If elected, she assumes the responsibility to protect the land and also ensure the family heritage is utilised and allocated properly. In Samoan legends and myths, powerful women such as Nafanua and Salamasina are remembered as holding the highest ranks. Women have also assumed other powerful roles in society as the village taupo (ceremonial hostess), thefofo (traditional healer), makers of ceremonial goods and as members of the Women’s Committees. Despite their meaningful presence in their communities, Samoan women are severely underrepresented in Parliament and in high-level decision-making positions.
The Bumpy Road to Now
Anti-incumbency has been brewing in Samoa in the last few years with mounting criticism towards the government over its poor handling of the 2019 measles epidemic during which more than 80 children dies, and controversial changes to the country’s constitution and judicial system. After 36 years with the party, Fiame Naomi defected from HRPP in 2020 as she feared Samoa was “sliding away from the rule of law”. She also believed the government was abusing its power to change the constitution and laws to advantage instead of focusing on the country’s needs and development. In the run up to the elections and in the time since she defected to the FAST party, Fiame Naomi and her largely female advisors have put up a huge challenge to the status-quo leadership. As Papali’l Mele Maualaivao, the U.N. Women Coordinator in Samoa, observed, “women have not only been significant as candidates but as fund raisers, advocates, and voters too. While it may be considered a more traditional and less public role for women here in Samoa to support their husband or male relatives’ effort to run for office, we have seen women band together to promote women running for office as well as promoting voters to support female candidates”.
Although Fiame Naomi comes from a family that has been involved in Samoa’s political history, the journey has not been easy for her. In 1978, she was awarded the Fiame title as the chief of the Lotofaga village after a battle in court. Even though she was the only child, her father’s matai title was not rightfully passed down to her as old Samoan men in the court questioned her leadership skills due to her being young and unmarried. Since then, Fiame Naomi has shattered many glass ceilings in her country, becoming the first female cabinet minister and deputy prime minister in the country’s independent history.
The Controversy with Gender Quotas
In the last few decades, Samoan politics has been dominated by men. To tackle the underrepresentation of women and give them a safety net, the Samoan government introduced the ’10 percent law’ before the 2016 elections. These gender quotas are also known as temporary special measures in the Pacific context, requires that at least five members of parliament are women. If the threshold is not met, the parliament creates additional seats for the highest polling unsuccessful female candidates to take. In the elections that concluded in April, there was a tie between the FAST party and the HRPP party with each holding 25 parliamentary seats and one independent candidate. Although the Electoral Commission Office created and allocated an extra seat to Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuu'au from the HRPP citing that “only 9.8 percent of the women membership was achieved after the general election", the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the creation of a new seat and proposals for a fresh round of elections.
Currently, the FAST party has a 26-25 majority with the independent MP Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio joining them. Even as the Supreme Court gave the greenlight for Fiame Naomi and her party to convene at the parliament and form the new government, the HRPP and Tuila’epa refuse to concede power and are backed by the head of state and speaker of the parliament. With the parliament suspended and literally locked up, Fiame Naomi took her oath outside the parliament in a tent. Thus far, only the Federated States of Micronesia have recognised her as the legitimate prime minister of Samoa.
The Road Ahead
In the ongoing power struggle and constitutional crisis with two governments asserting their legacy, Fiame Naomi stands tall and brave. Even as she faces immense resistance from her former party, she remains steadfast in her commitment to ensure that the rule of law and democracy prevail in the country. Thus far, she has had to face mudslinging from her opponents but has remained strong and faithful in the country’s judicial institutions that a just verdict will be delivered. As court proceedings continue and as the world watches what happens next, it is important to note that this is a significant milestone for women, not only in Samoa but also in the Pacific where politics is typically a ‘boy’s club’. Fiame Naomi is also a fierce advocate for gender equality and she is expected to take the agenda forward during her tenure as prime minister, in addition to resisting the increasing influence of China in the region.
It also remains to be seen how seriously the gender quota laws will be taken by the politicians and citizens, moving forward. The irony is thatthe proposition for an additional MPhas put proponents for parliamentary gender quotas in a difficult position, since the addition would end up blocking Fiame Naomi's chances of becoming the only female leader in the Pacific. As Dr Kerryn Baker, an expert on women’s political leadership in the Pacific, aptly summarised, “the debate over the gender quota reveals the ways in which women’s political representation can be weaponised… There is a risk that anger towards the quota’s implementation in this instance could manifest as broader opposition to the use of quotas to facilitate women’s participation in decision-making.” Ultimately, despite Samoa being a trailblazer in the region in terms of facilitating women’s representation in politics, gender quotas have become a double-edged sword in the present scenario.