By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Samoa thrust into a new era
Will Fiame ditch China?
Samoa is beginning to navigate a new political landscape, after being freed from the claws of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which ruled the nation for almost four decades under Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi who held power for 22 years.
The Court of Appeals has paved the way for Fiame Naomi Mata’afa to assume the post as Samoa’s first prime minister, after ruling that her party, Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST), was the legitimate winner of the April 9 elections.
The appeals court’s ruling broke the political impasse that locked Samoa in limbo for more than two months since the protest-ridden elections.
“Let us accept with the humility the decision we have received, especially with the spirit of peacefulness,” Fiame said in a public statement on the heels of the court’s decision.
With 25 seats each, the HRPP and FAST were initially locked in a dead heat. One independent candidate, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, later joined FAST, hence tipping the balance in favor of the opposition party.
But in an attempt to cling to power, Tuilapea challenged the FAST Party’s ad hoc ceremony under the tent on the lawn, where Fiame took her oath after the parliament locked her party out.
In a July 19 decision, the court declared the May 24 lawn ceremony “legally binding” and thus the FAST Party was “entitled to take power.” Subsequently, Tuilapea’s caretaker was immediately dissolved, leaving the former prime minister no choice but to finally concede defeat.
“With HRRP being in government for such as a long time, it has really impacted our public service,” Faime said in an interview with TVNZ.
She immediately buckled down to work. The first order of business was to “get our house in order” and to “bring about changes,” Faime said.
“Government work— it's not that sexy and our first order of business, of course, is to get a budget in so that government operations will go,” the new prime minister said.
But she acknowledged that the political overhaul might take a while. For those working in government, the change can be disorienting, given that HRRP dominated Samoa’s political scene for an entire generation.
“Most of them have never had another government except for HRRP,” Fiame told TVNZ.
The challenge now, she added, is to “make sure that public servants feel confident with the new government. They have a role to play and they also need to understand that this is a new government. We have a program that we would like to implement.”
Fiame is the daughter of paramount chief Fiame Mataʻafa Faumuina Mulinuʻu II, Samoa’s first prime minister. She previously served as the nation’s deputy prime minister. She joined the FAST Party last year, amid the Samoans’ growing disenchantment with Tuilapea’s autocratic rule that hid under the shroud of democracy.
Officially called the Independent State of Samoa, the Polynesian island country has a population of 200,000.
In a bigger picture, Samoa’s foreign policy under Fiame’s leadership will potentially have an impact on the Pacific islands region, where China has been playing the numbers game.
Tuilapea declared China “a lasting true friend of Samoa.”
In May, Fiame vowed not to get beholden to the communist nation. After the elections, she announced a plan to scrap a $128 million Chinese-backed port development, which she described as “too excessive” for Samoa, which is already heavily indebted to China.
The proposed wharf construction in Vaiusu Bay has been a polarizing issue that came on stage in the April elections.
China and Samoa have a rooted history. The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived on the Polynesian island in the 19th century. Over time, they integrated into the culture.
While saying earlier that she would maintain Samoa’s relations with Beijing, Fiame’s policy statement is anticipated to reconfigure the ties between the two nations. Some observers are predicting Samoa’s diplomatic switch.