Samoa has elected its first woman prime minister. Now an ongoing constitutional crisis, ironically centred around competing interpretations of Samoa’s parliamentary gender quota provisions, is preventing her from taking power.
On Monday, it was not a glass ceiling that stopped Fiame Naomi Mata’afa – on track to become Samoa’s first woman prime minister – but a glass door. Fiame, the leader of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, turned up to Samoa’s Parliament with her party’s MPs-elect and supporters, along with the Chief Justice, to find the doors locked on the order of the previous Speaker to prevent the new government being sworn in. This was in defiance of successive Supreme Court judgements decreeing that Parliament must sit on or before that date.
Undeterred, Fiame and her FAST colleagues held a swearing-in ceremony in a tent outside Parliament, an act that caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi called “treason.” Fiame has called the head of state’s declaration to suspend Monday’s parliamentary sitting a “coup.” Samoa is now firmly in the midst of a constitutional crisis, with two governments asserting their legitimacy.
It is a sudden political twist for a country that has been governed by the same party, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), basically continuously for 40 years. Tuilaepa has been in office since 1998, making him the second longest-serving prime minister in the world. He has been a commanding presence in Samoan politics, regularly leading the HRPP to two-thirds or greater majorities in elections. In the 2016 election, the HRPP won 94 percent of seats.
Before last year, Fiame was a prominent member of the HRPP, having first entered parliament in 1985. She has a strong family background in politics. Her father, a paramount chief, was Samoa’s first prime minister, and her mother was one of Samoa’s first women parliamentarians. In her long career, Fiame has distinguished herself as a popular and well-respected political leader, rising to hold senior positions in Cabinet, including deputy prime minister from 2016. Her success is notable in Samoa and the wider Pacific, seen as a relatively hostile context to women’s political leadership. As of March 2021, just 6.8 percent of the region’s parliamentarians were women.
It was Fiame’s defection from the HRPP, amid controversy over constitutional changes to the judicial system, that bolstered the credibility of the newly established opposition FAST party. Fiame is perhaps the only politician in Samoa today who can plausibly match Tuilaepa’s authority as a political leader. Under her leadership, FAST ran a party-based campaign – unusual in Samoa’s localised political culture – and took advantage of the HRPP’s traditional strategy of running multiple candidates in constituencies, which in many cases allowed FAST candidates to win through vote-splitting.
What does it mean for women? Fiame has long been a staunch advocate for gender equality, and she is expected to take that agenda forward if confirmed as prime minister. It is also very important symbolically to have a woman prime minister in the Pacific. Only one woman, Hilda Heine in the Marshall Islands, has served as head of government in the region before, and she lost office in 2020. On Tuesday, she tweeted her support for Fiame: “Your win is a win for Pacific women.”
Yet the issue of women’s representation is in fact at the heart of the constitutional crisis in Samoa. The two parties are split over interpreting the gender quota article in Samoa’s constitution, introduced in 2013. It sets a minimum level of women’s representation in parliament. If not met following a general election, it mandates that the highest-polling unsuccessful women candidates in that election should be appointed as additional members. This constitutional amendment was introduced to bolster the traditionally low levels of women’s representation in the Samoan parliament, and while it proved controversial with the general public, it was publicly supported by both Tuilaepa and Fiame.
The article states that women must “consist of a minimum of 10% of the Members of the Legislative Assembly … which for avoidance of doubt is presently 5.” In the 9 April election, five women were elected. Yet, with parliament having increased in size from 49 to 51 seats due to legislative changes in the previous term, this amounted to 9.8 percent of seats. Eleven days after the election, as the sole independent MP was about to announce he was joining FAST, giving them a one-seat majority, the hsad of State (acting on advice from the electoral commissioner) appointed a sixth woman to parliament. The highest-polling unsuccessful woman candidate, Ali’imalemanu Alofa Tuuau, was a member of the HRPP, creating a 26-26 deadlock. Subsequently, the head of state issued writs for a second election on 21 May, citing this deadlock.
FAST challenged these decisions in court, arguing that the quota should be interpreted as mandating five women MPs, rather than 10 percent, and that the second election was unconstitutional. On 17 May, the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, voiding both the appointment of Ali’imalemanu and the second election, and ordering parliament to convene by 24 May. The head of state announced a parliamentary sitting for that date, only to abruptly cancel it late on the prior Saturday evening. While he did not give a reason, Tuilaepa has maintained that the HRPP will not agree to convene parliament until the sixth woman MP is included.
The debate over the gender quota reveals the ways in which women’s political representation can be weaponised – in this case, as a means of preventing Samoa’s first woman prime minister from assuming office. While proponents still argue that the gender quota is important – and the April election demonstrated this, with women notably under-represented as both candidates and elected MPs – the controversy over the quota has made it the target of much criticism. There is a risk that anger towards the quota’s implementation in this instance could manifest as broader opposition to the use of quotas to facilitate women’s participation in decision-making.
Samoa has a long and strong tradition of women in leadership: paramount chiefs, pro-independence leaders, and in more recent times, parliamentarians, ministers, and CEOs. With much of the drama in the current constitutional crisis taking place in the courtroom, it should be noted that women – including current Attorney General Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale and FAST lawyer and former Attorney General Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu – are playing prominent roles. Yet entrenched resistance towards women’s political participation and leadership has long been a factor in maintaining male dominance in decision-making across the world, and while gender is far from being the only factor at play in Samoa’s political power struggle, it should not be completely ignored. What should have been a momentous occasion for gender equality on Monday ended with Samoa’s first woman prime minister literally and figuratively locked out of parliament.
Kerryn Baker is a Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on elections, electoral reform, and women’s political leadership in the Pacific Islands. She is the author of Pacific Women in Politics: Gender Quota Campaigns in the Pacific(University of Hawai’i Press, 2019).