Fierce power struggle as Samoa braces for general election

A fierce power struggle is unfolding in the small Polynesian nation of Samoa ahead of its next general election on April 9.

Election results in the central Pacific island nation of about 199,000 people in northeast Fiji have been predictable for more than 20 years. With little opposition, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has led the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) to victory in every quinquennial vote since 1998. The party itself has been in government for almost 40 years. years.

Malielegaoi, now 75, has been in power for 23 years and is one of the oldest leaders in the region and the world.

But this time a heated opposition has emerged with new parties and candidates determined for change at the top.

“Thinking back to 2011 and 2016, the mood is different this time around,” said Renate Rivers, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Samoa Observer.

“We are finding that many more people feel encouraged to speak openly about policies or candidates whether they support or not. Samoa also hasn’t had an official opposition party for five years, so it definitely felt like a wake-up call for many people who realized they actually had other options for the next election, ”he said. she told Al Jazeera.

The biggest challenge comes from the newly formed FAST coalition of three parties, namely the Fa’inoana i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi Party (FAST), the National Democratic Party of Samoa and the Tumua ma Puleono Party.

The leader of FAST is former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa who resigned from the government and the HRPP, of which she was a member for more than 30 years, last September.

Senior politician, clan chief and daughter of the country’s first prime minister after independence, Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, she became Samoa’s first female cabinet minister in 1991 and deputy prime minister in 2016.

Her defection, following her rejection of controversial new legislation that she says will worsen corruption, preceded a heated public exchange with Malielegaoi, in which he accused her of treason and she denounced the ruling party for abuse. to be able to.

‘Don’t get better’

“HRPP has had its time for 40 years. With a population of less than 200,000, we should have at least a decent lifestyle, given that we have an external debt of $ 1.2 billion, but the country is not improving under HRPP’s watch. A spokesperson for FAST told Al Jazeera. . We have had 100 people who died due to the government’s negligence and ineptitude in handling the measles epidemic in 2019. Corruption is ubiquitous with large contracts awarded to companies closely linked to cabinet ministers and nepotism, as we have a prime minister and his son as the head of finance and his son-in-law as the chief auditor.

Samoa, a former German colony, was occupied and then administered by New Zealand from 1914 until its independence in 1962.

It is a parliamentary democracy, although modern political leadership is firmly linked to the “matais”, the indigenous chieftains of the country who exercise immense power over the areas of family welfare, land, property, religion and politics. Until 1990, only matais could vote and stand as electoral candidates. Candidates for the majority of the 51 seats in the Legislature must still hold a matai title, but by the turn of the last century voting was extended to all citizens aged 21 and over.

On Friday, 128,848 voters went to the polls to choose from 189 candidates, including more than 20 women. The HRPP, which holds the majority of parliamentary seats, has the highest number of candidates with 105. The FAST coalition comes next with 52, while other parties, such as the Tatua Samoa Party and the Samoa First Party, respectively. 14 and 5.

The ruling party’s promises include more infrastructure development and it competes with the FAST coalition on promises to improve educational outcomes and hospital services. Malielegaoi is once again convinced of his victory this year but Rivers, the journalist, believes that the party is counting on “the gratitude of the voters for the work accomplished since they came to power”.

This includes changing the use of roads in the island state from right to left in 2009 and moving the international date line in 2011 to boost the economy and trade with Australasia and Asia. The same year, he played a decisive role in the intensification of sub-regional cooperation with the creation of the Polynesian Leaders Group.

HRPP was approached to comment on the election but did not respond.

Important issues for voters will likely include jobs and the pandemic.

“Samoa is in economic difficulty because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is now in a recession and border closures have cut off tourism revenue and also slowed down our seasonal employment conditions. On the ground, many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, ”Rivers said.

Samoa has a gross domestic product or GDP of $ 4,324 per capita, a relatively high rate for the region. But before the pandemic, around 20.3% of the population lived below the national poverty line and the unemployment rate was around 14.5%, according to the World Bank.

Personal connections

Another hot issue is likely to be the government’s controversial passage last year of the new Land and Titles Court, Constitution Amendment and Justice Bills. Critics say these laws give too much power to the executive and that by elevating the power of a new land and title court, which prioritizes customary law, weakens the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge abuses to be able to.

Mata’afa, acting in accordance with the views of his electorate, Lotofaga, rejected all three last year.

The FAST party now promises to “restore and maintain the rule of law, the previous government and the HRPP having dismantled the justice system by creating two separate courts which undermine the role of the Supreme Court and the independence of the judiciary”, according to to his spokesperson.

Voter turnout is likely to be high, given the stakes, but other factors will influence behavior at the polls, such as family allegiances and diaspora support.

“In Samoan politics, you usually have fairly small constituencies where voters know the candidates because they are family members or are from the same church or village, so those personal connections tend to be much more important than party politics, ”said Kerryn Baker. , Pacific Policy Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

The very large diaspora, estimated at more than half of the country’s resident population, could also exert considerable pressure.

Rivers said many Samoans living in Australia, New Zealand and the United States are opposition supporters. “They funded a lot of the opposition campaign and launched a social media campaign that was very successful in countering the rhetoric of the ruling party,” she said.

The return of the writs for Samoa’s next 17th legislature is expected on April 23.

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