Samoa has long been touted as a beacon of democracy and political stability in the Pacific, a region troubled by military coups and civil strife. The prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, is the world’s second longest serving prime minister, having held the office for more than 22 years.
But the latest election in the country, held last month, saw the most serious challenge to Malielegaoi’s ruling Human Rights Protection party (HRPP), and has left the country without a clear result. In the weeks since, the government has used every method available to it – and some that arguably are not – to hold on to power. What the government is doing is effectively a bloodless coup.
While other Pacific nations have used military force to take or retain government, Samoa’s seemingly democratic system has been white-anted to similar effect; its apparent stability obscuring the gradual deconstruction of democracy over the last few decades.
During this time, frequent constitutional amendments and legislative rewrites have skewed electoral rules, politicised the public service and eroded the rule of law. Dissent has been discouraged through media regulation and criminal libel laws. The legislature and executive have become controlled by a dominated cabinet.
But the most significant structural reform – the government’s contentious 2020 restructuring of the judiciary, customary land and chiefly titles – seeded unexpected political opposition.
Malielegaoi’s deputy prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mataafa, one of the most senior female parliamentarians in the Pacific region, resigned to protest the undermining of the rule of law in Samoa. The resulting political momentum saw the founding of the FAST party which Fiame has led since March 2021.
Despite the prime minister’s public confidence that HRPP would retain a strong majority, the stunning election results saw HRPP and FAST locked at 25 seats apiece with independent Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio holding the balance of power.
When results were officially confirmed, the electoral commissioner declared Samoa’s gender quota for 10% female MPs had been met, with the election of five women out of 51 MPs.
However, the commissioner then reversed his position and an additional woman MP – representing HRPP – was appointed. The following day, independent MP Tuala announced he was throwing his support behind FAST, meaning parliament was again deadlocked, this time at 26-26.
Ironically, the use of the quota aimed to increase women’s parliamentary representation stopped the country from getting its first female prime minister.
Unsurprisingly, FAST has challenged the activation of the women’s quota in the supreme court. On the eve of the court hearing that might break the deadlock, the head of state – a separate position to the prime minister – made the unprecedented decision to void the election results and call a fresh poll.
The calling of fresh elections is Samoa’s most significant test to date of the rule of law. FAST has filed a further legal challenge, questioning the head of state’s powers to send the country back to the polls.
While Samoa awaits the court’s determination, election preparations are under way. No new candidates are permitted and many candidates have withdrawn, significantly reducing the number of seats in which HRRP fielded multiple candidacies, splitting their vote, and making it more likely they might see victory this time around.
Petitions alleging “corrupt or illegal practices” have been filed against a significant number of the successful candidates, but these candidates are free to stand again with those claims unresolved, sidestepping the court’s role to address electoral corruption.
The government has attempted to block Facebook access, citing concerns about its impact on fair and peaceful elections.
Government leadership has consistently sought to delegitimise the court process through unsubstantiated allegations of judicial bias. Its public narrative lauds a rightful return to the polls for the people to decide the election outcome, not the courts. But the court’s proper role to interpret the constitution and adjudicate disputes in accordance with law cannot be aborted because one side anticipates an outcome it does not like.
Make no mistake, what is happening in Samoa is a bloodless coup and ignores the results of an election that has revealed a deep desire for change in the country after 40 years of one-party rule.
It sets a dangerous precedent for developing countries and is a blow to democracy in the Pacific. It also sends a warning to international partners, who have praised Samoa’s stability and development gains, but – perhaps because of these gains – have overlooked the significant erosion of the rule of law in the country in the last 20 years.