Samoa election: Island nation waits to see if it has elected its first woman Prime Minister

Samoa is on the cusp of change – no matter what its general election result is.

The island nation is eagerly waiting to find out exactly who will govern for the next five years; after preliminary results over the weekend resulted in a deadlock.

It is also waiting to see if it has elected its first ever woman Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa – which would also result in the end of an era in current PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has held the role for 23 years.

Both the current Human Rights Protection Party and the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi Party, better known as Fast, have come back with 25 seats in the 51-seat parliament.

One seat won by first-term independent candidate Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio has put him in the potential and unexpected role of kingmaker.

Whether or not that will be the case will be known in the coming days, as the official final count started in Samoa this morning; after special votes were sorted late last night.

Speaking about the election early today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged that no matter who eventually takes the reins, New Zealand had good ties with both.

Asked on TVNZ’s Breakfast if a specific result could signal a change in relationship with New Zealand, she shook her head slightly, saying: “Business as usual.”

“The fantastic thing is that both with the current Prime Minister and the contender for Prime Minister – both strong relationships with New Zealand.”

Speaking about Mata’afa – who was the deputy Prime Minister before she left the HRPP Party last year – Ardern said she had met her on several occasions.

“Obviously she served as the deputy Prime Minister, so obviously her connection, knowledge and engagement with New Zealand has been significant over the years.”

Who is Fiame Naomi Mata'afa?

Ardern said it would be interesting to see how the results would pan out over the next few weeks.

The much-anticipated results come after what many have dubbed to be one of the island nation’s most exciting and dramatic elections in recent times.

The Fast Party – translated to faith in the one true God – was established last year by La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao Schmidt after he was sacked by the HRPP for not siding with then proposed controversial constitutional amendments.

Months later, Polataivao joined forces with Mata’afa and she was named the Fast Party leader later, and he her deputy.

As part of their campaign, the party harnessed and used social media in a way that has never been seen in a Samoan election before.

There was a particularly smart use of the Facebook Live feature – updating their supporters both locally and internationally via real-time videos showing what they were doing and the villages they were in.

Mata’afa is a well-respected daughter of Samoa and has grown up around politics her whole life.

Her father, the late Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, was the country’s first elected Prime Minister shortly before Samoa became an independent nation in 1962.

Tuilaepa's 23 years

Samoa’s current leader, known to many as Tuilaepa, has led the nation for almost 23 years after assuming office in November, 1998.

He, like Mata’afa, attended higher education in New Zealand before returning to Samoa to take on politics.

He has known many New Zealand Prime Ministers and political leaders over the years and throughout events that have altered Samoa.

Some of his most well-known and sometimes controversial moves include legislation in 2009 that saw drivers changing from using the right side of the road, to the left.

It was pitched that more families from nearby New Zealand and Australia would be able to send vehicles to their loved ones in Samoa.

That came just a few years before another bill was brought in to shift Samoa to the west of the international date line; which would also help for better economic relations with the likes of New Zealand and Australia, Tuilaepa said.

Tuilaepa has also been at the helm during some of the country’s most tragic seasons; including the 2009 tsunami that killed at least 192 people and the 2019 measles epidemic that resulted in the deaths of 79 people – the majority of them children.

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