A crack in the glass ceiling

The fallout from Samoa’s 2021 election has triggered a broader discussion about women in politics, writes Dr Kerryn Baker.  

In April, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa caused the political equivalent of an earthquake for Samoa. The long-serving and immensely popular politician had taken on a political powerhouse in the country’s national election – and won. Her former party, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), had been in power almost continuously for 40 years. Its leader, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, had been prime minister since 1998.

By leading her fledgling opposition FAST party to victory, Fiame set another milestone. She was poised to become the country’s first woman prime minister.

The Pacific Islands region has the lowest levels of women’s parliamentary representation in the world. Just seven per cent of Pacific legislators are women, compared to 25 per cent globally. The first woman head of government in the region, the Marshall Islands’ Hilda Heine, was only elected in 2016, and lost office in 2020. So the result of the 2021 Samoan election was met with great excitement by women in the region.

In a tense and protracted constitutional crisis, women’s political representation has been weaponised.

Fiame‘s path to power, however, has been anything but smooth.

FAST’s win, albeit with a razor-thin majority, has been complicated by dueling interpretations of Samoa’s parliamentary gender quota. FAST maintains the minimum level of women’s representation in the (vaguely worded) legislation is five women, which would see no new seats added and FAST secure a majority. HRPP claims the quota is 10 per cent, which would bring a new (HRPP) member into parliament and create a deadlock, potentially requiring a second election. Samoa remained without a government while election-related battles were fought in court.

In a tense and protracted constitutional crisis, women’s political representation has been weaponised. The HRPP is claiming to be acting for women in pushing for a more generous interpretation of the quota. Yet the symbolism of Samoa’s first woman prime minister being literally locked out of the country’s parliament on the day she was due to be sworn in resonated throughout the Pacific, a region where women have often been figuratively locked out of political spaces.

The controversy over the quota has revived common arguments against such measures: that they are unfair, undemocratic, and tokenistic efforts that serve to entrench male political interests. Such rhetoric can set the cause of greater women’s representation back, particularly in the Pacific where quota uptake has been very low compared to other world regions.

Yet there is a silver lining to the Samoan political crisis in that it has sparked a broader discussion on women in politics.

Amidst the back-and-forth on five versus six women MPs, there is a new call: why not 10? Or 20? Or more? Beyond the drama of the 2021 Samoan election, there is a broader debate to come on the value of, and the need to guarantee, women’s voices in political decision-making.

Dr Kerryn Baker is Research Fellow at The Australian National University’s (ANU) Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA).