Samoa's 2021 election: the perfect storm for a crisis: Iati Iati reflects on the problems Samoa has been experiencing in forming a new government.

Samoa's 2021 election has taken the country into uncharted waters. The Samoan political system merges traditional Samoan political institutions and processes with the Westminster style of democracy. As such, all members of the Legislative Assembly must hold a matai (traditional Samoan leadership) title. Since 1982, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has won all but one election. But even that defeat, in 1986, was to a coalition led by former HRPP members. Effectively, the party has been in power for approximately 40 years, earning Samoa a reputation, in some circles at least, of being a one-party state. Since 1998, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has been the prime minister, making him the longest serving Pacific leader. During the HRPP's reign, there has barely been an opposition, and in the 2016 election this was nearly decimated when the HRPP won 47 of the then 49 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The number of seats was expanded to 51 for the 2021 election. The 2021 election produced a result that few if any predicted. An opposition party, Faatuatua I le Atua Samoa ua Tasi Party (FAST), formed in July 2020, secured 25 of the 51 seats. The HRPP secured 25 seats. One independent, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, controlled the balance of power and eventually gave his allegiance to the FAST. If this sent shockwaves through Samoa, what happened next blew everyone out of the water.

The Constitution provides that a new government must be sworn in within 45 days of the election. At the time of writing, it has been 54 days since the election, and a government has not been officially sworn in. In fact, both the caretaker HRPP government and the FAST are claiming to be the legitimate government. Key parts of Samoa's political system, in particular the Constitution, the head of state and the Supreme Court have come under intense scrutiny as the country tries to move out of the impasse. Claims of bias levelled at the electoral commissioner, the head of state and even the Supreme Court justices have become commonplace in the hyperbole being thrown around to justify each side's claim to be the legitimate government. How has this come about?

This article examines the events that brought about this unprecedented situation, in a country long regarded as the most stable in the Pacific. It argues that three factors created a perfect storm of events within a political environment marked by pockets of discontentment and heightened distrust of the HRPP government to produce the current outcome. First, the HRPP introduced three controversial Bills into Parliament in early 2020, which were eventually passed by the HRPP controlled Legislative Assembly in December 2020. This produced a groundswell of dissent among Samoans at home and abroad, galvanising previously disjointed pockets of discontentment against the HRPP. Second, a constitutional provision aimed at increasing women's participation in national politics was vaguely drafted so as to provide for conflicting interpretations about what the minimum number of female members of Parliament should be. Third, the election outcome produced a knife-edge result, which was left to be decided by the one independent member of Parliament, and a Supreme Court decision as to whether the Constitution mandated that a sixth woman candidate should be added to the Legislative Assembly.

For a number of decades, pockets of discontentment have emerged in relation to the leadership style and performance of the HRPP and in particular its leader, Tuilaepa Malielegaoi. Allegations of corruption, nepotism, misappropriation of aid, in particular in relation to the 2009 tsunami, non-transparent deals with China and the mismanagement of the measles epidemic conspired to taint the HRPP's reputation in different circles, both at home and among the Samoan diaspora. Although these are just allegations, they have fed a growing number of circles of discontentment and dissent against the HRPP.

One area that has attracted considerable dissent is the government's policies and handling of issues related to customary land rights. In 2008, the government passed the Land Titles Registration Act, which applies the Torrens system of registration to the leasing of customary lands. It has been argued that although this does not provide for the alienation of customary lands, in the technical sense, it does so effectively. (1) In other words, the legislation provides the avenue for customary landowners to lose control over their lands, even though they are still registered as the owners. Since the Act came into effect, there have been a number of protest marches in Samoa against it. Concerns about customary land rights came to the fore in 2020, when the government introduced three Bills into Parliament: the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020, which some claimed would jeopardise customary land rights. These were passed in December. Protest...

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