When Fiame Naomi Mata’afa turned up to the Pacific island nation’s Parliament on Monday to be sworn in, she found the building locked. The 64-year-old went ahead with the oath-taking ceremony anyway — inside a tent on Parliament grounds.
“(Though) it was disappointing, we weren’t surprised,” she said from her office in the capital Apia. “But we were very resolved that a convening and swearing-in ceremony needed to take place.” Monday was the final day a new parliament could be sworn in following the April 9 election under Samoa’s constitution.
Longtime politician Mata’afa — who hails from a storied political dynasty — argues her party won the election. But her opponent, Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi, Samoa’s Prime Minister of more than 22 years, sees it differently — and is refusing to relinquish power.
There’s more than just their own political futures at stake: Mata’afa and her newly formed FAST party say they are fighting to maintain the country’s democracy.
“We’ve probably lost our way a little bit,” she said in a Zoom interview with CNN, on what she sees as Samoa’s “slide away from the rule of law.” “In any society, these things happen and events come to a point where you have to make that change and put in the reset button.”
A political bloodline
Politics is in Mata’afa’s blood — although her forebears never faced a situation quite like the one now unfolding in Samoa.
Born in 1957, when Samoa was on the verge of gaining independence from New Zealand, Mata’afa had political credentials on both sides of the family tree.
Her grandfather was involved in the Mau, a non-violent movement fighting for Samoan independence. When she was still a child, her father became the first Prime Minister.
Mata’afa’s mother was a women’s rights activist who, Mata’afa says, dragged her along to political meetings and later became a Member of Parliament.
From very early on, Mata’afa knew she was interested in politics — and how to hold her own.
Later, at her predominantly White boarding school in New Zealand’s capital Wellington, a windy city more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) from Samoa, she was undaunted about being one of only two Samoans. “Being Pacific kids, we could hold our own,” she told RNZ, adding that she was a 5-foot, 7-inch-tall 11-year-old. “So we knocked a few heads around and that sorted it out and they left us alone.”
When her father died unexpectedly when she was 18, her own political trajectory sped up.
“I’m probably the only matai ever in Samoa that has been given the hard word to stay in the country,” she said, according to Spark’s 2020 article. “It was just the price I had to pay for being unusual.”
“It sort of sped things up. Sometimes life is like that,” Mata’afa said this week.
Mata’afa succeeded because she is smart and worked hard, said Spark, a senior lecturer in Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne.
“She’s kind of wonderfully formidable,” Spark said. “She’s intimidating without being scary, because she’s so impressive. She’s not someone you forget easily.”
Slide away from the rule of law
For decades, Samoa has been a stable democracy in the Pacific, as other countries there faced tension and coups.
The ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in power almost uninterrupted and unchallenged since 1982 — and for more than three decades, Mata’afa has been a part of that.
Yet Mata’afa said that in recent years, she began noticing a declining respect for the rule of law, and a rise in her party’s abuse of power.
“For me, that was such a stark demonstration of people not really taking responsibilities,” Mata’afa said. “It really takes away the dignity of the court … There are other people in jail for the same conviction.”
“Those bills were really the last straw,” Mata’afa said.
The party was regarded as the underdog — so when the initial results from the April 9 election showed HRPP in a deadlock with FAST, many were surprised. Mata’afa thinks people voted for her because they felt a “disconnection with their government.” “Suddenly people were sort of coming out of this almost slumber,” she said.
The election ultimately came down to one lone independent MP who opted to align with FAST, giving the party 26 seats to HRPP’s 25.
Yet that wasn’t the end of it. HRPP argues a constitutional provision aimed at boosting female representation in Parliament means it also has 26 seats.
Under Samoan law, a minimum of 10% of Parliament — or five seats — must be held by women, and if that threshold isn’t met, the electoral commission can create more seats. Women only made up 9.8% of Parliament — or five seats — after this year’s election, so the electoral commission created a new seat filled by an HRPP member. The decision to create that new seat was overturned by the Supreme Court, which argues the law is fulfilled as women hold five of the 51 seats available, without the additional post.
The Court of Appeal will hear the issue Monday.
Mata’afa sees that as a “full frontal attack on the judiciary” by Malielegaoi, who “just refuses to accept the election result.” In the statement, HRPP said it respected all court orders, but is “finding it hard to comply with all the decisions of the court given the fact that all rulings and behavior of the court has been against HRPP.”
Auckland University law lecturer Fuimaono Dylan Asafo said he expects the courts to find in Mata’afa’s favor.
“One of the bright sides of this constitutional crisis is that we’ve seen a leader who was willing to uphold the rule of law and follow the constitution even in the most challenging circumstances,” he said. “The newly elected Prime Minister has conducted themselves with dignity and grace in standing up against tyranny.”
HRPP MP Leota Tima Leavai said if the court ruled against the gender quota seat, her party will “concede to not having the majority.”
“We are not dictators, we are not lawless people, we only want what is best for Samoa.”
For now, Mata’afa has been too tied up with the ongoing power struggle to get on with running the country.
But if she is able to begin, she’ll be heralding in a new era — for women and for her nation.
Samoa has a close relationship with Beijing. Mata’afa says she doesn’t see major changes in those ties, but there are signs a recalibration may be on the cards.
She also said she would take Samoa’s level of indebtedness to China into account. Samoa faces a high risk of debt distress, according to the International Monetary Fund, and about 40% of Samoa’s external debt is owed to China.
Regarding public concern about the level of Chinese immigration and business investment in Samoa, Mata’afa is characteristically measured, saying: “We’ve got to address that for what it is … we need to have the discussions around those in a very sensible way.”
Mata’afa, who never married and has no children, is also seen as a trailblazer for female representation in the Pacific islands, where only 6.4% of lawmakers are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That’s well below the Middle East, on 17.2%, or West Africa, on 15.8%.
Kerryn Baker, a research fellow in Pacific Politics at Australian National University who specializes in gender representation, said “progressive” Mata’afa was uniquely placed to challenge the traditional politics of Samoa.
“It’s enormously significant in terms of her ability to put gender issues on the table at the regional level, but also just symbolically — the role model effect is really important,” she said. “It’s a huge milestone.”
Mata’afa is aware change isn’t easy.
“You have to take people along with you, and got to see the benefits of that change, not just change for the sake of change … or change because I said so,” she said.
Mata’afa sees herself as continuing the legacy of her predecessors. But she isn’t just doing it for them.
“I don’t think I’m necessarily just doing it because they did it,” she said. “If it is a legacy, it’s a legacy that I’m pleased to continue. It’s a public service.”