S.Amoa has long been touted as a model of democracy and political stability in the Pacific, a region troubled by military coups and civil strife. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is the world’s second oldest prime minister, having held the post for more than 22 years.
But the latest elections 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, and some possibly not, to hold on to power. What the government is doing is effectively a bloodless blow.
While other Pacific nations have used military force to seize or retain government, Samoa’s seemingly democratic system has been whitewashed to a similar effect; its apparent stability obscures the gradual deconstruction of democracy in recent decades.
During this time, frequent constitutional amendments and legislative modifications have skewed electoral rules, politicized the public service, and eroded the rule of law. Dissent has been discouraged through media regulation and criminal defamation laws. The legislature and the executive have become controlled by a dominated cabinet.
But the most significant structural reform, the controversial restructuring of the judiciary, customary lands and mainly government property titles in 2020, generated unexpected political opposition.
Malielegaoi Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa, one of the most important 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 that Fiame has led since March 2021.
Despite the prime minister’s public confidence that HRPP would retain a strong majority, the staggering election results saw HRPP and FAST locked at 25 seats each with the independent Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio maintaining the balance of power.
When the results were officially confirmed, the Election Commissioner declared that Samoa’s gender quota for 10% of women MPs had been met, with the election of five women out of 51 MPs (9.8%).
However, the commissioner then changed his position and one more deputy was appointed, representing the HRPP. The following day, the independent MP Tuala announced that he was supporting FAST, which means that the parliament was again stagnant, this time at 26-26.
Ironically, the use of the quota aimed at increasing parliamentary representation of women prevented the country from securing its first prime minister.
Unsurprisingly, FAST has challenged the activation of the quota for women in the supreme court. On the eve of the court hearing that could break the deadlock, the head of state, a separate post from the prime minister, made the unprecedented decision to annul the election results and call a new vote.
The call for new elections is Samoa’s most important test of the rule of law to date. FAST has filed a new legal challenge, questioning the powers of the head of state to return the country to the polls.
While Samoa awaits the court’s decision, preparations for the elections are underway. No new candidates are allowed and many candidates have withdrawn, significantly reducing the number of seats for which HRRP ran multiple nominations, dividing their vote and making it more likely that they will win this time.
Petitions alleging “corrupt or illegal practices” have been filed against a significant number of the selected candidates, but these candidates are free to re-run with those unresolved claims, circumventing the court’s role in addressing electoral corruption. .
The government has tried to block access to Facebook, citing concerns about its impact on fair and peaceful elections.
The government leadership has consistently sought to delegitimize the judicial process through unfounded accusations of judicial bias. His public narrative praises a legitimate return to the polls for the people to decide the outcome of the elections, not the courts. But the proper role of the court to interpret the constitution and resolve disputes in accordance with the law cannot be aborted because one of the parties anticipates an outcome that 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 progress, but, perhaps because of these developments, have overlooked the significant erosion of the rule of law in the country over the past 20 years. .