After Weeks of Twists, Samoa Is Set to Have Its First Female Leader

Uncertainty and intrigue were followed by a dead-heat election. But Fiam Naomi Mataafa will become Prime Minister on Monday, barring other surprises.

While its island neighbors in the Pacific suffered military coup and internal instability, Samoa followed a predictable political course for a long time, holding the same leader in power for more than two decades.

But as the country prepares to make its first female Prime Minister, that status quo has been changed dramatically. The incoming leader, Fiame Naomi Mat’afa, represents a sharp break from what has been described as a worrying slide away from the rule of law, and he has scrapped a major infrastructure project backed by his country’s largest creditor, China Swore

And after a seven-week period of uncertainty and intrigue that followed the April 9 election, his ascension has sent a rare charge through Samoan politics.

First, there was a dead heat in the voting. Ms Mata’afa’s upstart party won as many seats in parliament as it did under the leadership of the swagging prime minister, Tuilepa Sailele Malielegaoi. An independent candidate captured the remaining seat, making him the kingmaker.

This triggered a sharp rebuke of the candidate by both the parties. But the Election Commission intervened – paradoxically, preventing Ms. Mataafa’s rise from the use of a law meant to ensure more women were served in Parliament.

Under that law, women should occupy at least 10 percent of the seats. The April election counted at 9.8 percent, which the Election Commission deemed inadequate. So it appointed another female member of parliament – one representing Mr Tuilepa’s party. This gave him a majority, and paved the way for him to continue in office.

It did not last long. The independent candidate soon threw her weight behind Ms. Mata’afa’s party, and Samoa’s judiciary later voted out the additional female member of parliament, bringing Ms. Mata’afa’s party to a majority. Although Mr. Tuilapa has not yet accepted, Ms. Matafa is scheduled to be sworn in as Prime Minister on Monday.

Maybe Samoa can hold its breath then.

Ms. Matafa’s climb to the top job in Samoa – a country called Western Samoa until 1997, to separate it from American Samoa – has more than four decades in the making. Ms Mataafa, 64, a high-commander who holds the title of fame, was inspired into political leadership after the death of her father, the country’s first prime minister, when she was 18 years old. Shortly afterwards, she became matai, or chief. His family – an unusually early rise.

“At the age of 18, I was hoping to go to university, get a degree, get a job, maybe get married,” she said by telephone on Friday. Always interested in politics, he hoped to step into the field over time. “But things unexpectedly intensified. Sometimes life doesn’t necessarily work the way you thought it would. “

Iti Iti, a political scientist at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said that he had long been expected to one day become Prime Minister – but not as a successor to Mr Tuilepa, as his rival.

Ms. Matafa spent three decades at Mr. Tuilepa’s party, the Human Rights Protection Party, eventually becoming its deputy. But he left it in November, which he saw as a slide towards autocracy, including law Which threatened to change the structure of the Samoan judiciary.

“It was not a difficult decision,” Ms Mata’afa said. “The thing that really inspired me to make the decision to step down was essentially the abolition of the rule of law.”

“Because of the vast majority that HRPP had,” he said, “it became much more prevalent, there wasn’t even an internal investigation – I was feeling like a lonely voice. If you You can’t do it from the inside, so you have to step outside. “

She became the leader of a new opposition party, known as FAST, which attracted many other HRPP defectors.

“She is such a strong, powerful, well-respected political leader, and she is actually the only politician in Samoa at the moment who can counter Tuilepa,” said Kerryn Baker, a researcher at the Australian National University of Parliamentary Gender Are experts. Quota in the area.

Ms. Mata’afa has already pledged to take an important step away from the 76-year-old Mr. Tuilepa, the world’s second longest-serving Prime Minister.

On Thursday, it announced that it would cancel the $ 100 million wharf development supported by China, stating that its small country of 200,000 people did not need such a large infrastructure project. China is Samoa’s largest creditor, accounting for about 40 percent of its foreign debts, or about $ 160 million.

Mr. Tuilepa has been a firm ally of Beijing for decades. While Ms Matafa said she wants to preserve relations with China, her pledge to postpone the Ghat project has raised questions about the future of those relations, Dr Iti said.

“What is Samoa’s position in relation to China, what is the position of the Pacific in relation to China?” he said. “It has people investigating China’s role in the country and the region as a whole.”

Ms Mata’afa has also promised to focus on sustainable development as Pacific nations suffer from the effects of climate change, and work to ensure women’s continued participation in politics.

One of the first female members of Samoa’s parliament, Ms. Matafa has been a fierce defender of the parliamentary gender quota. She does this not as a way to increase women’s participation, but “as a law to ensure that it does not go below this level.”

Samoa’s welfare system, unlike more developed countries, is still largely family-based, “and so women still bear that responsibility and burden,” Ms. Matafa said. “Women have to see politics as an area where they have seen that other women are capable of achieving it, so it is not something that is inaccessible.”

“My goal for women is to fulfill their potential, that we overcome whatever obstacles are there for women, so that they can contribute,” she said.

But with more than 20 legal challenges still pending for her election, some worry that Ms. Mataafa may still be prevented from assuming the top post.

“HRPP and Prime Minister Tuilepa – they have not worked,” said Patricia O’Brien, an Australian National University expert in the field. “They are going to doubt the results, they are going to doubt the court cases, they are trying to work to muddy the waters and disrupt a systemic transition of power.”

Mr. Tuilepa indicated how he saw his place in Samoa this month, when he responded to the protest by about 100 people being called to accept him.

“I am appointed by God,” he Told local news media. “They should go to a church and pray instead of protest in front of the courtyard.”

Ms Matafa said on her part that she only wants to work.

“It’s a free world; he can talk about anything he likes,” he said. “I like to spend my energy talking about things that need to be addressed . “

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