News Item

Samoa Elections 2021: Challenging the status quo

Media 8 Apr 2021

Can you remember the last time Samoa had a formidable political opposition? It has been a while, and it has been even longer since a different political party was in government. Nanai Anae Dr Iati Iati offered his insights to the Pacific Cooperation Foundation into the mood of the nation, the most pressing issues facing the nation, who might win, and whether the nation is ready for change.

The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in power since 1982, apart from a brief respite in the late 1980s, when a coalition government (led by a breakaway group of HRPP members) held office.

An apparently formidable political opposition has now fomented in the form of Faatuatua i Le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST), prompting talk about a possible change of government. This is uncertain; there is no indication of a seismic shift in the voting preferences of traditional institutions at the grassroots level, which has been the HRPP’s powerbase. Nevertheless, the rapid rise of FAST suggests that some form of change is on the horizon.

In a very short time, FAST has shown that it is a force to be taken seriously, although how sustainable its popularity will be in the long term is unknown.

In Fiame Naomi Mataafa and Laauli Leuatea Polataivao Schmidt, FAST have a pair of seasoned former HRPP members with an understanding of what is effective in election campaigns, and where the HRPP might be vulnerable. Importantly, both have deep political roots in traditional and modern Samoan politics, which could draw away some of the HRPP’s traditional support.

It will be difficult to topple the HRPP. After nearly 40 years in power, Samoans are unaccustomed to any other leadership group, and familiarity and loyalty are key factors in Samoan elections.

With Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi at the helm, Samoa has experienced both political highs and lows. But, Fiame and Laauli were both integral to the HRPP government at one time and could rightly claim a part in its successes and failures. During its tenure, the HRPP has used a variety of means to create a strong bond with key actors in the traditional political domain. This bond appears intact, although three controversial Bills (The Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Judicature Bill 2020 and the Land and Titles Bill 2020), passed late last year, have strained the relationship in some quarters.

Government interference with customary land rights, and the traditional institutions of the aiga and matai is a focal point of the election. Rightly or wrongly, the HRPP is seen to have undermined customary land rights, starting with the Land Titles Registration Act (LTRA) 2008. With the introduction of the three Bills last year, Samoans both locally and abroad have questioned whether these will open up traditional institutions to unchecked government influence. Customary land rights, and the institutions of aiga (extended family) and matai (traditional leaders) are sacrosanct in Samoan society and as long as these are seen to be interfered with, FAST has potent political ammunition to play with.

The role of the Samoan diaspora under the spotlight. Those eligible to vote must do it locally, so COVID restrictions have limited their direct influence. Nevertheless, the diaspora, including both Samoan citizens and non-citizens remains closely involved and influential in the election buildup. Many in the diaspora have been highly critical of government policies and politics, particularly those relating to customary land rights, aiga, and matai. Social media is replete with sentiments supporting and rejecting the diasporas involvement. The arguments from both sides are well known.

On the one hand, those living abroad are detached from the realities of life in Samoa and therefore should limit their political engagement and influence. On the other hand, the diaspora is critical to the country’s economy and therefore should have a say in political affairs.

One point that is sometimes missed is that the aiga is a transnational social, economic, and political unit, and overseas members are important to resolving issues back home, particularly involving customary and traditional institutions and rights. Aiga and matai form the foundation of Samoan politics and therefore the government should not tamper with their relations, either internally or abroad. The diaspora cannot be ignored.

For democracy to work effectively there must be political transparency, accountability, legitimacy, and respect for the rule of law. This requires an informed and engaged public, leadership that considers different viewpoints in society, and a strong political opposition.

There are encouraging signs that the Samoan people, both at home and abroad, are engaging in critical discussion about policies and demanding greater transparency and accountability. More of this is needed if Samoa is to have a healthy and vibrant democracy.

At the same time the profanity laced vitriol infusing some of these discussions departs from the customary political etiquette and norms expressed in the concept of va fealoai (rules of behaviour, etiquette).

This is not a conducive environment for polite and peaceful yet robust political dialogue and debate for which traditional Samoan democracy is known for. Someone once said, we should agree to disagree, but not be disagreeable.

Note to editors

Early voting has started however the official election date is Friday 9 April.

Information about the Samoa 2021 Election and the results can be found on the Office of the Electoral Commission in Samoa’s website or its official Facebook page.

It is expected, the final results will be known during the evening, local time, on Friday 9 April.

About the author

Bio: Nanai Anae Dr. Iati Iati is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics and International Relations Programme, and Pacific Security Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. He teaches International Relations and New Zealand Foreign Policy at the undergraduate level, and Strategic Studies at the Masters level. He recently co-edited a book on New Zealand foreign policy: New Zealand and the World, and has published on various subject-matter in relation to Pacific politics, including land reform, regionalism, geopolitics, and governance. He was a lecturer and senior lecturer at the University of Otago Politics Department for eight years, and was also co-director for the 48th and 50th Otago Foreign Policy schools. His current projects include New Zealand foreign policy in the Pacific, the geopolitics of the Pacific, and land reform in the Pacific.

Email contact -

About the Pacific Cooperation Foundation

The Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF) is a non-governmental organisation which develops and implements public/private sector economic development and socio-cultural initiatives in the Pacific region. We Connect, We Inform, We Enable.

To achieve PCF’s mission of promoting cooperation for sustainable economic development in the Pacific, PCF delivers targeted initiatives. PCF is primarily funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to enable the effective delivery of these projects. PCF works with various partners in New Zealand and throughout the Pacific region to effectively deliver its initiatives, which support prosperous Pacific communities.

Other views on Samoa's elections

Shelley Burich, Founder and Owner of Vaoala Vanilla

What do you think the mood of the nation is right now as Samoa's elections gets underway?

This election year there is definitely a different mood. I feel the mood is of anticipation and hopefulness. The nation is ready for change and I feel that the ‘change’ that is on everyone’s minds is that it needs to be a ‘change’ of government. Being in power for so long has dangerously steered us towards almost being a dictatorship, authoritarian led nation. Whether it is the same party and leadership that gets back in, change still needs to happen to bring our people out of poverty, rising unemployment rates, rising crime rates and much more.

What are the key issues on voters' minds right now?

I believe some of the key issues on voters’ minds right now is obviously the Lands & Titles and Constitution amendments that recently got passed. How it was rushed through without any proper public and unbiased consultation process. Other issues are unemployment, education and health – three main issues that need to be prioritized for the next government. Voters want change to happen – no matter which party leads our country, a more positive change expected from voters. I also believe there is a large majority of voters who are being ‘coerced’ into voting for a particular person or party by parents, elders, matais and villages – many of these young voters want change but are scared to vote against who they have been ‘told’ to vote for (my housegirl is a prime example – her parents have told her who to vote for and she has no say in the matter).

Who do you think is going to win and why?

I want FAST to win but I think HRPP is going to win again BUT it won’t be a landslide win like the last election. I believe FAST is going to make a fantastic opposition party and have the numbers in parliament to keep HRPP and the leadership accountable to the needs of the country and not the needs of the party or person! And that is good! That is the first change that needs to happen!

Do you think Samoa is ready for a change of leader, of so why, if not why not?

Personally, I think Samoa is ready for a change of leader – whether it is HRPP or FAST. I would love to see Fiame lead our country, not only as the first female prime minister but also because of her compassion, empathy and sincerity for her people and nation. We are missing all of that with our current leader. Being in power for so long – over 20 years – is not healthy for any country. Every executive board (NGO, private or public) has a term for its leadership, to keep the leader accountable and not risk the issue of leaders becoming complacent and thinking they ‘own’ the organization – so why is our government not doing the same? Positive change needs to happen and I think Samoa knows and wants that.

Vaelei Von Dincklage, Reporter for the Samoa Observer and former PCF media intern (2019).

Samoa will decide who their next Prime Minister is in due time.

Samoa is really anxious as they wait who will be their next Prime Minister for the next five years. Human Rights Protection Party has been in power for more than thirty years. However, the new formed party Faatuatua I le Atua Samoa ua Tasi well known as FAST are also optimistic. Tautua Samoa party and other parties candidates are also trying their best.

With Samoa in its pre polling days, members of the public are showing all sorts of expressions, some look anxious as the votes are coming in from different constituencies, some have already celebrated their candidates’ victory.

Some of the issues that the voters especially the elders involved in the election pre polling is, not being aware of the time frame that the pre polling registration was done. One of the issues that I see personally is that majority of people are no longer voting for the best and most fitted candidate, but the parties.

For me, whoever wins that’s who I will support. I am neutral in this whole General Election event. As a journalist, it is our duty to be apolitical. As a journalist, I should be able to educate voters but it does not mean I have to get affiliated to any political parties but to be politically neutral.

Media outlets reports from the FAST roadshows, the parties manifestos and campaigns shows that various people have different perspectives’ of what they want from a potential future Government.

On Friday 9th April, Samoa will decide who and which party they want to lead them in the next five years. I cannot determine who and what party will win as there are more than 128, 000 voters who will have the final say. Who wins cannot be determined by one voter but eventually Samoa will know who their new Prime Minister is.

Yongkwon Suafa, Student

I think the nation is going through a period of transition, therefore the people must be unsettled to some extent. I believe the issues on voters' minds right now is how Samoa will deal with COVID-19's situation and China's potential colonization over Samoa. I feel HRPP will definitely win because it has remained a strong party for a while and has developed the nation greatly within the past few years. I think Samoa isn't ready to change its leader as there are too many changes happening already and its current leadership seems to be keeping the nation on its feet.

Su'e Epati, NZ-based Samoan

The nation are in a very complex mood at the moment, because the two big parties HRPP and FAST have provided accurate accusation towards the other and are well presented by the media around the country. The key issues on voters minds now, is that they are looking for the one who can provide them help in the next five years not the one with the big words but the one who can walk the talk. I believe HRPP will come out on top again, because they have already won 12 seats and that is a big advantage. Samoa is born ready for any changes, they can easily adapt any changes that comes around, the only problem is that they don’t like changes.

First image: Samoa's caretaker Prime Minister Hon. Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi. Source: Government of Samoa website

Second image: FAST Party leader and former deputy prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa. Source: SPC Community