Sunday, 20 Jun 2021

‘Boys’ club’: Samoa’s crisis casts shadow over gender equality in Pacific politics

An impasse between Samoa’s incumbent prime minister and female opposition leader and PM-elect could result in a backlash against gender quota rules in the small Pacific island nation and stop other women from entering politics across the region.

April’s tightly-contested election gave the FAST opposition party led by Fiame Naomi Mata’afa – who was bidding to become Samoa’s first female leader a one-seat parliamentary majority until poll authorities gave the ruling party an extra MP to meet a 10 per cent female representation rule.

In an apparent effort to overcome the month-long impasse, the Pacific nation’s head of state – a largely ceremonial role – said an election ordered a re-run on May 21, but this was overruled by the Supreme Court, which rejected the creation of an additional parliamentary seat.

Samoa’s Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.Credit:Samoa Observer/AP

The nation’s political crisis intensified on Monday as Fiame held a ceremony to form government outside a locked parliament after the incumbent Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi refused to cede power. On Tuesday, Tuilaepa accused the court of bias and the judges of being friends or related to Fiame.

“There was a lot of symbolism in Samoa’s first woman prime minister-elect being literally locked out of parliament,” Kerryn Baker, a research fellow at the Australian National University, said on Tuesday.

“What we have also seen in this situation is an example of the entrenched resistance towards women’s leadership that is a huge factor in women’s continued under-representation in politics,” she said.

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, a former government minister and leader of a breakaway party, was set to be confirmed as Samoa’s first female leader, but has been blocked from entering parliament.Credit:AP

Samoa, which has a population of about 200,000, lies in a region with one of the world’s lowest levels of female political participation.

The Marshall Islands elected Hilda Heine as the Pacific region’s first female president in 2016 but she lost office in 2020 and there are currently no women heads of government in the region.

Samoa became the only independent country to introduce a parliamentary gender quota across the region in 2013, although others such as Papua New Guinea are considering it.

Fiji has the highest female political representation at 22 per cent – double that of second-placed Tonga – but still well below the global average of 25 per cent, said Baker, an expert in electoral reform and women’s political representation in the Pacific islands.

“What happened [on Monday] were absolutely remarkable scenes, completely unprecedented in Samoan politics,” she said. “This is a constitutional crisis for Samoa.”

Boys’ club

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific islands program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said tensions remained high on both sides of Samoan politics and, with numerous court appeals still ongoing, the political process was far from over.

If Fiame is to be the country’s first female prime minister, it would likely have a profound impact on female political representation across the region, which is typically a “boys club”, he added.

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi hsa been Samoa’s prime minister for 22 years but lost the April election.Credit:AP

Fiame’s success as leader of FAST is a very important milestone for women’s political leadership in the region, political analysts say, especially as she is a well-known and popular figure in the Pacific.

She has been a staunch advocate of female empowerment and political representation – through legislative changes she made as a government minister, and mentoring women candidates and MPs – and the region will be watching to see what happens next, analysts said.

“Fiame as prime minister will signal a strong message that women can not only be politicians but also commanders in chief,” said Lefaoali’i Dion Enari, a Samoan chief and researcher at Australia’s Bond University.

“[She] will show in a powerful and realistic way that other women and young girls can do it.”

But the “bruising experience” Fiame has had post-election, could also put many women off politics, said Baker.

It is also important to distinguish between support for the gender quota and for women’s representation in general, and this particular situation and the ramifications of appointing a sixth female MP, Baker added.

With only five women elected in April’s poll, it showed that the female quota was still very much needed, she said.

“We have seen a lot of criticism and anger directed towards the quota system as a result of this impasse, and one of the dangers is that the baby is thrown out with the bath water,” said Baker.

Australia and New Zealand have not yet formally recognised the new government, although both have said democratic processes and the judiciary should be respected.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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