It is one of the most experienced politicians in the Pacific Islands, but Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, leader of the FAST party (Fa’atuatua and le Atua Samoa ua Tasi), won 26 of 51 parliamentary seats in Samoan elections last month to claim victory, he faces the biggest battle of his 36 years in politics.
The island nation of Polynesia, with about 199,000 people, has been at an unprecedented political stalemate since the April 9 polls.
Many analysts saw the rise of FAST under Mata’afa, a former deputy prime minister, as the first sign in decades of a serious electoral challenge to the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, which has been in office for 22 years.
But few anticipated the roller coaster of dramas and intrigues that have captured the nation and region ever since.
Despite the uncertainty, the 64-year-old remains remarkably bewildered.
“If the caretaker government continues to throw these things at us, we will only have to go through them and of course the courts will take them on and go through due process. So I think patience is the key,” Mata’afa said. during an interview with Al Jazeera.
Last week it looked like the election blockade had been broken, after the two major parties won with 26 seats each.
Mata’afa, who resigned in September 2020 before joining the FAST party, should be sworn in as the new prime minister on May 24 after the Supreme Court rejected the HRPP’s claim for an extra-parliamentary seat for meet the rules on women’s representation, which makes the FAST party take a seat leadership.
But in a desperate attempt to prevent the transition of power, Malielegaoi closed the doors of the Samoan parliament.
Undaunted, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was sworn in at an unofficial ceremony in a nearby tent, an initiative the HRPP called a “betrayal.”
Mata’afa rejects these claims.
“All the while, we’ve been following the election law … and I’m telling you, our courts have really defended themselves, which is very critical right now because we don’t have a parliamentary parliament and the caretaker government is a interim agreement, “he said. dit. “So this is the body that works and luckily it works.”
His boundless long-term view of the current crisis may not be surprising, given his 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 a member of the Lotofaga constituency on the country’s main Upolu island in 1985. .
She held several ministerial portfolios of education, women, community and social development, justice, environment and natural resources until 2016, when she became deputy prime minister in the HRPP government.
Under his leadership, the FAST party campaigned during the election on issues such as the fight against corruption, strengthening the rule of law, fighting unemployment and reviewing not only the country’s external debt and the trajectory in development projects.
While he believes Samoans should solve the stalemate themselves (and have the capacity to do so), Mata’afa welcomes offers of support from international agencies and bilateral partners.
The United Nations has already offered its help in finding a solution and the Federated States of Micronesia has publicly supported the new government.
“They got me the message that Palau will follow the same path,” he said. “In addition, the general secretary of the Commonwealth has contacted, spoken to the prime minister and also called me,” he said.
Kerryn Baker, a member of Pacific Policy in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the National University of Australia, added: “The Pacific Islands Forum has offered to act in this direction. [mediator] if necessary, through the new Secretary General, Henry Puna, and the Biketawa Declaration provides a framework for responding to regional security challenges that could be invoked. But I think a lot of people in Samoa hope that this can be resolved in the 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 additional seat in parliament.
“So if he is not successful in this matter, he will leave his post, because this is the last handling in which he is really hanging,” Mata’afa asked.
Although the kidnapping of the incumbent prime minister’s parliament has been described as a “bloodless coup,” there is no indication that the island nation is falling into disarray.
“This is certainly a very tense and divisive situation for Samoa, but I do not expect it to end in violence,” Baker told Al Jazeera. There is every indication that this can be resolved, not necessarily quickly or simply, but definitely by peaceful means. “
Mata’afa agreed: “Samoa is not this kind of place. People are very measured; they are very aware of Samoa’s community lifestyle, which is very important to keep calm and let the processes go. “
Investment in the spotlight
While the inauguration continues, the elected prime minister remains clear about her priorities once in office.
“We would very much like to get the government infrastructure back in its proper place, in terms of development goals,” he said. “Our education and health indicators are very poor. I think with our current government, the priority in terms of shaking up the economy has been around infrastructure projects. We would like to involve the wider population base in the economy, so we would like to invest more in how we can grow small and medium-sized businesses. “
It is also eager to generate a more rigorous approach to development and infrastructure in the country, including a controversial port project in Vaiusu Bay that the Samoan government, under Malielegaoi, publicly proposed in 2012.
The project, which was to be funded by China for $ 100 million, has been deeply controversial by Samoans, who see it as an increase in the debt of the Pacific island state to the East Asian country. . It is estimated that 40 percent of Samoa’s external debt is owed to China.
“I’ve been asked a lot of questions about Chinese projects, including the pier,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. Samoa is a small country and I think our current entry points are more than enough to meet our needs. He has approached the Chinese and said they would look at him [the wharf project], but nothing has been signed ”.
Although Samoa has an average GDP per capita of about $ 4,324, according to the World Bank, it is estimated that 20.3 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line and unemployment is 14, 5 percent. Youth unemployment is about 32 percent.
“We’ve had a lot of projects with the Chinese and I think this is an opportunity to review them,” he said.
“What has been the pattern? Is this the most effective way to work with a bilateral partner? But not only China, but also our other development partners, ”said Mata’afa. “I think China, as a development partner and donor, should also come to the party and understand some of the rules about how it works with us. It’s always good to do it in an open and consultative way.”
Strengthening the rule of law is another key goal.
“We had three very controversial bills that were processed through parliament very quickly [last year] and it was one of the key reasons I left, ”he said.
The new Land and Titles Court, amendments to the Constitution and judicial laws provoked widespread opposition as they were seen as giving too much power to the executive, as well as weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge abuses of power. creating a new Court of Lands and Titles with -access powers.
Mata’afa said the legislation led to the “complete destruction of the judicial and judicial system” and, by creating an independent and autonomous court with a very unclear legal framework, “a very dangerous precedent.”
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a strong court on property, but in terms of a national legal jurisdiction, it’s so important to point out who is the highest authority,” he said. “This has always been the Supreme Court, but now that is being questioned.”
Beyond these long-term goals, Mata’afa also saw the urgency of a more coordinated response to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Samoa has only recorded 235 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began, it has sometimes imposed internal closure measures as well as restrictions on international travel and banned cruises.
“I understand that, in electoral circumstances, no one wants to talk about the immediate impacts on the economy by COVID-19, but I think it’s one of the things we need to keep in mind very quickly,” he said. .