Samoa’s ruling party faces new threat – after nearly 40 years in power

Prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Lupesoliai Malielegaoi has ruled for 22 years, but a former ally leads a new coalition of challengers

The 22-year rule of one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, Samoa’s Tuilaepa Sailele Lupesoliai Malielegaoi, faces its most significant challenge, with a new coalition – fronted by a former political ally – threatening his grip on power.

The elder statesman of Pacific politics, Malielegaoi has been prime minister and foreign minister of Samoa since 1998.

But he has faced growing criticism in recent years, in particular over his handling of the 2019 measles crisis which killed 83 people, amendments to Samoa’s constitution, and the country’s relationship with China.

Criticism of his government on social media led to him threatening to ban Facebook from Samoa.

Now the merging of three opposition political parties signals a significant threat to Malielegaoi’s rule, and that of his Human Rights Protection party (HRPP), which has governed for 38 years.

In a press conference on Wednesday, the leaders of Fa’atuatua i Le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, the Samoa National Democratic party, and the Tumua Ma Puleono party, announced they were joining forces to contest next year’s elections.

FAST party leader La’auli Leauatea Polataivao was a long-serving member of Malielegaoi’s ruling party, but the pair fell out over a number of policy disputes, with Polataivao ultimately leaving the party and losing his seat.

Polataivao formed the FAST party and won a weekend byelection in a landslide.

“Our joint vision is to work towards the success and good of our country now and into the future. We do not want to … create hardship, we want to serve Samoa to the best of our ability,” he said.

Tumua ma Puleono party leader John Malaeolevavau Peterson said the merging of three parties was aimed at toppling the HRPP, which has dominated Samoan politics since it was formed.

“We are all aiming for the same thing, we want to change the government.”

That may be easier said than done. The HRPP holds 35 out of 49 elected seats in the country’s parliament – the Fono – and is the parliament’s only recognised party.

Malielegaoi was unanimously voted back as leader by his party in July ahead of the 2021 poll.

“There are criticisms that Tuilaepa [Malielegaoi] has served too long, but the reality is, the voters make that decision every election, by voting for HRPP. This is a Westminster system after all, and that’s how democracy works,” said cultural governance expert Le’apai Lau Asofou So’o.

“Generally it’s a good idea to join forces to put together a stronger coalition with the hope of obtaining power. However whether that idea translates into seats is the true test come the election.”

Electoral commissioner Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio told the Guardian there was no provision prohibiting parties from merging and that coalitions were recognised under parliamentary standing orders.

To be recognised as the official opposition, alternative parties have to win at least eight seats.

Malielegaoi is the longest-serving prime minister in the Pacific, and the third-longest-serving in the world, behind Bahrain’s Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, and Cambodia’s Hun Sen.