Samoa’s cliff-hanger general election is a victory for under-represented women in Pacific island politics, regardless of the final outcome, opposition leader Fiame Naomi Mataafa said Monday.
Her FAST party is on the cusp of a major upset after Friday’s vote, leaving incumbent Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi fighting for his political life after 22 years in office.
The result is even more extraordinary because FAST has managed to challenge one of the world’s longest-serving democratically elected leaders just nine months after the party was formed.
Mataafa said she was feeling “very thankful” for the support FAST has received, with preliminary results showing it deadlocked with the ruling Human Rights Protection Party at 25 seats apiece in the 51-seat parliament.
That leaves lone independent Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio holding the balance of power, with the ability to choose Samoa’s next leader.
Mataafa said she would open discussions with Ponifasio on Monday but it could be weeks before an outcome is known as a result would likely be subject to legal challenges.
She said even if FAST failed to win government, the level of support for a female-led party was a game-changer for women’s participation in politics.
“I don’t think it’s just (becoming) prime minister, it’s in any field where women have trail-blazed,” she told New Zealand broadcaster TVNZ.
“I’ve always been conscious of the fact that I’m a role model and of course I’ve been a very strong advocate of women’s participation in politics.
“The message for women, particularly young women, is that once you open the door you can do this.”
Politics has traditionally been a male preserve in the Pacific islands, with Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands still the only woman to lead an island nation when she was president from 2016-20.
“Women’s representation (globally) is the lowest in the Pacific island states as women hold six percent of seats, and they are not represented in parliaments in three countries,” UN Women said in an assessment released in January by the UN gender equity group.
A 2015 paper from the National University of Samoa said there were specific barriers to women entering politics in the nation of 220,000 linked to their exclusion from grassroots decision-making at the village level.
However, Mataafa, 64, is perhaps uniquely placed to challenge such gender restrictions due to her family’s exalted status in Samoa and her proven record during 36 years in parliament.
Mataafa’s father was Samoa’s first prime minister when it gained independence in 1962 after nearly 50 years as a New Zealand protectorate.
After entering parliament in 1985, she became the country’s first female cabinet minister, then deputy prime minister in 2016 until she quit last year when Malielegaoi introduced new laws that she believed undermined the constitution.