Samoa’s first female prime minister takes charge

| September 10, 2021

The prolonged constitutional crisis that had engulfed Samoa since the 9 April 2021 election finally concluded on 23 July with a Court of Appeal ruling.

The court ruled that the 24 May swearing-in of Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party leader Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and her government — held in a tent outside the parliament after they were locked out of the building — was constitutional, making FAST the legitimate government.

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, leader of Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) and prime minister since 1998, finally conceded after a months-long standoff. Fiame becomes the first woman prime minister of Samoa, and the second-ever woman head of government in the Pacific islands region. Her success was celebrated by many women in the Pacific, notorious for low levels of women’s political representation.

Fiame has long been a trailblazer for women’s leadership. As a long-serving member of parliament and Samoa’s first woman deputy prime minister, she is used to breaking glass ceilings and has been a strong advocate for gender equality throughout her political career.

In July, she noted the symbolic importance of her saying that ‘for a very long time, women have not been able to hold these kinds of positions. So I’m very pleased then to have been able to. I suppose it’s role modelling, that it can be done’.

But Fiame is not the average Samoan woman. Coming from a paramount chiefly family, she holds a high-ranking title. She has a unique political pedigree as the daughter of Samoa’s first prime minister, Mata’afa Faumuina Fiame Mulinu’u II, and one of the country’s first woman members of parliament, Laulu Fetauimalemau Mata’afa.

This chiefly and political heritage is deeply respected. In her long career as a parliamentarian, Fiame also established herself as a political leader in her own right. Many predicted she would be Samoa’s next prime minister. Few expected it to be before Tuilaepa retired.

It is deeply ironic that one barrier to Fiame gaining power sooner was a debate over Samoa’s parliamentary gender quota law. In its most generous interpretation, it would have added another woman member of parliament and erased FAST’s parliamentary majority.

Supporters on both sides claimed they were acting for women’s empowerment: on the FAST side, by guaranteeing a woman prime minister and on the HRPP side, by increasing the number of women parliamentarians from five to six.

In late May, HRPP supporters staged a women’s empowerment march to advocate a broad interpretation of the quota, sparking debate on social media and a rebuttal from the FAST Facebook page: ‘stop weaponising women so that you remain in power’. The constitutional crisis period was further marked by accusations of sexism and misogyny on both sides of politics. In the struggle for power, gender was employed as a tool to gain political advantage.

The gender quota provisions were put in the spotlight. Narratives that were used to oppose the gender quota when it was first proposed — that it is unfair and allows women to enter politics without proving merit — returned in force. Yet the focus on the gender quota also opened the doors to debate on the value of women’s political representation.

Samoa is notable in the Pacific as the only independent state to have instituted a gender quota. But it mandates a minimum level of women’s representation of 10 per cent — much lower than other quotas worldwide and well below the 25 per cent global average of women in parliaments.

Court battles were waged over whether the minimum number of women parliamentarians should be five or six in a parliament of 51. Meanwhile, there was a growing push for a more ambitious target that would allow for more women in politics.

What next for women in leadership in Samoa and the wider Pacific? Tuilaepa has continued to contest the result, most recently alleging New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern plotted to replace him with a woman leader.

The election of Fiame is an important milestone — as a well-known figure in the Pacific region, her win has significant symbolic value. At the August Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting, Chair and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama acknowledged this, stating: ‘It is always a proud moment when a daughter of the Pacific ascends to this high office’.

Fiame will be expected to actively promote gender equality in Samoa and regional fora. She will not be doing this work alone. Her newly appointed cabinet is comprised of 25 per cent women, including Samoa’s first female finance minister. Fiame’s challenging route to leadership highlighted the entrenched nature of resistance to political change and women’s leadership. With a new, woman-led government taking power, there is a clear opportunity for change.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.

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