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How trailblazing Samoan MP Fiame Naomi Mata’afa is transforming the country’s politics

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, a veteran powerbroker with ties to royalty, has taken the starring role in a Pacific island political drama that could see her unseat one of the world’s longest-serving democratic leaders and become Samoa’s first female prime minister.

In a plot twist that would have been unthinkable a year ago, the 64-year-old’s fledgling FAST party came from nowhere to win 25 seats in the 51-member parliamentary elections earlier this month.

With a sole independent set to determine its outcome, Ms. Mata’afa must be at her persuasive best during negotiations as she seeks Samoa’s first change of government in almost 40 years.

But even if her leadership bid fails, the woman once referred to as “the devil” by current Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has successfully transformed Samoan politics.

Mr. Malielegaoi’s Human Rights Protection Party has ruled since 1982, and he has been in charge for 22 years.

Ms. Mata’afa, who served as his deputy before resigning last year, has helped forge a viable opposition in just nine months, ending decades of Samoa operating as a one-party democracy. She has also put women front and center in a region where politics has traditionally been a male preserve – Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands is still the only woman to have led a Pacific island nation when she was president from 2016-20. “I don’t think it’s just (becoming) prime minister; it’s in any field... The message for women, particularly young women, is that once you open the door, you can do this,” she told New Zealand broadcaster TVNZ.

‘Regal bearing’

The rise of Ms. Mata’afa’s FAST Party may appear to have happened overnight, but its leader has been in parliament for 36 years.

Her family is part of the Tama-a-taiga – Samoa’s royal lineage – and has been steeped in the island nation’s political life for generations.

Ms. Mata’afa’s grandfather helped draft Samoa’s constitution, and her father was the nation’s first prime minister after independence from New Zealand in 1962.

Her mother also served as a lawmaker and diplomat.

After graduating from Wellington’s Victoria University, Ms. Mata’afa entered parliament in 1985, representing the same Lotofaga electorate her father and mother had previously held.

She was an integral member of the HRPP government, becoming Samoa’s first female cabinet minister in 1991, and has held several portfolios, including education, women, social development, justice, and environment.

Outside parliament, she has held many senior positions, including the pro-chancellor and chair of the University of the South Pacific, where she holds an honorary doctor of letters.

She is recognized globally as a leading voice in the fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Her pioneering feminist credentials were enhanced in 2016 when she defeated a male opponent in a party vote to become Samoa’s first female deputy prime minister. That role ended abruptly when she resigned in September last year over a suite of controversial laws introduced by the government to control the judiciary. Ms. Mata’afa said the legislation, also strongly condemned by the legal fraternity in Samoa and internationally, proved her fear that the government was “sliding away from the rule of law”.

Molly Aronson

I'm an award-winning blogger who enjoys all things creative but is especially passionate about lifestyle design. I blog over at mehlogy.com I love that I get to share my passion for healthy living, fashion, fitness, and travel with readers from all over the world.

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