She is one of the Pacific Islands’ most experienced politicians, but Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, leader of the FAST (Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi) Party, which won 26 of 51 parliamentary seats in Samoa’s election last month to claim victory, is facing the greatest battle of her 36 years in politics.
The Polynesian island nation of about 199,000 people has been in unprecedented political deadlock since the polls on April 9.
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Many analysts saw FAST’s rise under Mata’afa, a former deputy prime minister, as the first sign in decades of a serious electoral challenge to the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has been in office for 22 years.
But few anticipated the roller-coaster ride of drama and intrigue that has gripped the nation and region since.
Despite the uncertainty, the 64-year-old remains remarkably unruffled.
“If the caretaker government keeps throwing these things at us, we just need to go through it and, of course, the courts will take them on and go through the due processes. So, I think patience is the key,” Mata’afa said during an interview with Al Jazeera.
Last week, it seemed the electoral deadlock, after both major parties claimed victory with 26 seats each, had been broken.
Mata’afa, who resigned in September 2020 before joining the FAST Party, was set to be sworn in as the new prime minister on May 24 after the Supreme Court rejected the HRPP’s claim to an extra-parliamentary seat to meet rules on women’s representation, resulting in the FAST Party taking a one-seat lead.
But, in a desperate attempt to prevent the transition of power, Malielegaoi locked the doors of the Samoan parliament.
Undeterred, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa took her oath of office in an unofficial ceremony at a marquee nearby, an initiative which the HRPP described as “treason”.
Mata’afa dismisses such claims.
“All along, we have pursued the law pertaining to elections … and I tell you what, our courts have really stood up, which is very critical at this time because we have no sitting parliament and the caretaker government is an interim arrangement,” she said. “So, that is the functioning body and thank goodness it’s functioning.”
Her unflustered long-term view of the current crisis is perhaps unsurprising, given her lifelong experience of public life.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa is the daughter of Samoa’s first post-independence prime minister, Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, and first entered politics as the Member for Lotofaga constituency on the country’s main Upolu Island in 1985.
She held various ministerial portfolios for education, women, community and social development, justice, environment and natural resources until 2016, when she became deputy prime minister in the HRPP government.
Under her leadership, the FAST Party campaigned during the election on issues including fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, tackling unemployment, and reviewing not only the country’s foreign debt and track record on development projects.
Although she believes that Samoans need to resolve the stalemate themselves – and have the ability to do so – Mata’afa welcomes the offers of support from international agencies and bilateral partners.
The United Nations has already offered its assistance to find a solution, and the Federated States of Micronesia has publicly supported the new government.
“I’ve been given the message that Palau will follow the same way,” she said. “Also, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth has reached out, she has spoken with the PM and she also gave me a call,” she said.
Kerryn Baker, fellow in Pacific politics at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, added, “The Pacific Islands Forum has offered to act in that [mediator] role if required, through the new secretary-general, Henry Puna, and the Biketawa Declaration offers a framework for responding to regional security challenges that could be invoked. But I think many people in Samoa are hoping this can be resolved in-country, without resorting to international interventions.”
The next hurdle for the FAST Party is May 31, when the court will hear Malielegaoi’s appeal against the Supreme Court’s decision to abolish the HRPP’s extra seat in parliament.
“So, if he is not successful on that matter, will he then step down, because that is the last handle he is really hanging onto,” Mata’afa asked.
While the incumbent prime minister’s hijacking of parliament has been described as a “bloodless coup”, there is no indication that the island nation will descend into unrest.
“This is certainly a really tense and divisive situation for Samoa, but I don’t foresee it ending in violence,” Baker told Al Jazeera. There’s every indication that this can be resolved, not necessarily quickly or easily, but definitely through peaceful means.”
Mata’afa agreed: “Samoa is not that kind of place. People are very measured; they are very conscious of Samoa’s communal style of living, that it’s very important to keep calm and let processes go through.”
Investment in the spotlight
Even as the jostling for power continues, the prime minister-elect remains clear about her priorities once in office.
“We would really like to get the government infrastructure back into its proper place, in terms of the development objectives,” she said. “Our indicators for education and health are very poor. I think with our current government, the priority in terms of stirring the economy has been around infrastructure projects. We would like to involve the broader base of the population in the economy, so we would like to invest more heavily in how we can grow small and medium businesses.”
She is also eager to generate a more rigorous approach to development and infrastructure in the country, including a controversial port project at Vaiusu Bay which the Samoan Government, under Malielegaoi, proposed publicly in 2012.
The project, which was to be financed by China to the tune of $100m, has been deeply controversial with Samoans, who perceive it as adding to the Pacific Island state’s increasing indebtedness to the East Asian country. An estimated 40 percent of Samoa’s external debt is owed to China.
“I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the Chinese projects, including the wharf,” she said. “We are not prioritising that. Samoa is a small country and I think our current entry points are more than sufficient to meet our needs. The Chinese have been approached and they’ve said that they would look at it [the wharf project], but nothing has been signed.”
While Samoa has an average GDP per capita of approximately $4,324, according to the World Bank, an estimated 20.3 percent of the population live below the national poverty line and unemployment is about 14.5 percent. Youth unemployment is nearly 32 percent.
“We’ve had a lot of projects with the Chinese and I think this is an opportunity for us to review,” she said.
“What has been the pattern? Is this the most effective way that we can work with a bilateral partner? But not only China, also our other development partners, as well,” Mata’afa said. “I think China, as a development partner and a donor, also needs to come to the party and understand some of the rules around how you work with us. It is always good to do it in an open and consultative manner.”
Strengthening the rule of law is another key objective.
“We had three very controversial bills that were processed through parliament very quickly [last year] and it was one of the key reasons I walked away,” she said.
The new Land and Titles Court, Constitution Amendment and Judicature Bills provoked widespread opposition as they were seen to grant too much power to the executive as well as weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge abuses of power by creating a new Land and Titles Court with far-reaching powers.
Mata’afa said the legislation led to the “complete destruction of the judicial and court system” and, by creating an independent and autonomous Land and Titles Court with a very unclear legal framework, “a very dangerous precedent”.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a strong Land and Titles Court, but in terms of a national legal jurisdiction, it is so important to signal who is the top authority,” she said. “That has always been the Supreme Court, but now that’s in question.”
Beyond those longer-term objectives, Mata’afa also saw an urgency for a more coordinated response to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Samoa has recorded only 235 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began, it has, at times, imposed internal lockdown measures, as well as restrictions on international travel and banned cruise ships.
“I understand that, under election circumstances, no one wants to be talking about the immediate impacts on the economy by COVID-19, but I think that is one of the things we will have to very quickly get a handle on,” she said.