APIA (THE GUARDIAN)—Samoa’s ruling party will face its strongest challenge in 40 years as the small South Pacific country goes to the polls on Friday.
After 22 years in the top job, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi is the second-longest serving prime minister in the world (second to Cambodia’s Hun Sen at 36 years).
But his Human Rights Protection party (HRPP) faces a formidable challenge at the polls as he faces off against his former deputy prime minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa, daughter of Samoa’s first prime minister and the leader of Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST).
The competition has resulted in aggressive campaigning by both parties and a strong response by members of the public, on the ground and online.
Fast has pushed its messages directly to villages, erecting billboards throughout the country. Diaspora communities have raised more than US$500,000 for the party.
In response, Malielegaoi has used his weekly radio interviews to campaign on changes he has made in the two decades he has been in charge of the country.
“We have noticed a massive shift in the habits of political parties in our country, and it is only good for our democracy,” says Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, Samoa’s electoral commissioner, from his office in the capital of Apia. “It gives the people more options in terms of observing policies each party has engaged in, we are excited about it.”
The 2021 election will see multiple changes in electoral law, aimed at making the vote fairer and more transparent, including pre-polling for vulnerable populations and essential workers, and strict rules regarding transportation and feeding of voters heading to the polls.
In previous elections, political candidates would transport voters to the polls and provide them with money and food after they voted. But the commissioner has sought to stamp out such practices.
But while Lemisio welcomes the new spirit of competition at this year’s election, there are concerns that the contest has led to a sense of urgency and fear among some voters as some candidates resort to name calling and disparaging commentary.
“There is evidence that our society is divided, more so than any other previous election,” says Leasiolagi Malama Meleisea, professor at the Centre of Samoan Studies. “The appearance of the new party and the way they have been campaigning on issues to do with long-term rule of law and governance, integrity and culture has certainly shifted the political discussion.”
Meleisea says Fiame – who holds the highest ranking chief status “Sa’o Fa’apito” – has been able to challenge Malielegaoi among more traditional voters.
“Clearly there is dissension in areas that traditionally support HRPP, as some are shifting allegiance due to Fiame’s stature,” he says.
But, Malielegaoi seems unfazed. “I am not worried and I am confident,” he said in one of his weekly radio interviews. “We already have systems in place, we know how to do this properly.”
HRPP supporters have been vocal in their support for their leader. Tuifatu Vave, a farmer from Upolu, tells the Guardian: “I’m voting for HRPP because they have led our country for many years and I think they have done a good job.” Vave adds that his wife and his two brothers will also vote for the ruling party.
Meleisea says it is unlikely that Fast will win power on Friday but it could win enough seats to become a legitimate opposition. “If they win 10 seats [out of 51] to secure opposition that would be a bonus.”
Fiame has been vocal in her criticism of HRPP policies and hopes to continue this in parliament.
“I understand governments and power but I also understand when that power overtakes, when there are no controls over it,” she told Samoa Observer.
Pre-polling that started this week shows Fast candidates holding their own against HRPP.
Social media has played a key role, with both parties using Facebook to directly engage with voters. Fast has a much larger reach online, with 25,000 Facebook followers to HRPP’s 7,000.
There are concerns that the use of social media has resulted in misinformation.
A cultural expert on diaspora communities, Lefaoalii Dion Enari, says social media is the only way diaspora Samoans can engage in politics. “They want to take part in it, but instead of constructively engaging, they end up just repeating false information shared and re-shared by others without due diligence.”
The president of the Journalists Association of Samoa, Rudy Bartley, says: “Without any effective monitoring of social media, misinformation has also become more common, with political party supporters attacking each other using fake pages and live broadcasts. This too is new and has affected how campaign strategies are done.”
Lemisio tells the Guardian that Facebook has deleted fake accounts at his office’s request and removed problematic pages: “We worked with Facebook directly as I did not want their platform to promote misinformation and affect our election.”….PACNEWS