Samoa crisis may put women off politics

·4-min read

An impasse between Samoa's incumbent prime minister and female opposition leader could see a backlash against gender quota rules and stop other women from entering politics across the Pacific, analysts warn.

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 premier - a one-seat parliamentary majority until poll authorities gave the ruling party an extra lawmaker to meet a 10 per cent female representation rule.

In an apparent effort to overcome a month-long impasse, the Pacific nation's head of state said an election should be held again on May 21, but this was overruled by the Supreme Court, which rejected the creation of an additional parliamentary seat.

But the twin-island 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.

"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 told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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 are considering it, like Papua New Guinea.

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 yesterday were absolutely remarkable scenes, completely unprecedented in Samoan politics," she said. "This is a constitutional crisis for Samoa."

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

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 very well-known and popular figure in the Pacific.

She has always been a staunch advocate of female empowerment and political representation - through being a role model, legislative change made as a government minister, and mentoring women candidates and lawmakers - 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 is 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.

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