With funding from the United States Agency for International Development, the International Republican Institute (IRI) is working to promote democratic governance in 12 Pacific Island nations. In most of the Pacific Island countries, political parties are weak or non-existent, and women play little role in them. The Independent State of Samoa, where the astonishing results of April’s national elections are still being contested, is one country in which IRI works that is changing that, showing the region and world another reason why #democracyneedswomen.

A One-Party State No Longer

Samoa was once hailed as the most stable democracy in the Pacific Islands. Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi of the Human Rights Political Party (HRPP) was the second-longest serving head of state in the world, and the HRPP has ruled since the mid-1980s. Tuila’epa faced controversy over the years, including a widely condemned move to amend the Land and Titles Courts (LTC). Despite this, on April 9, the HRPP went into the elections holding 47 of Parliament’s 50 seats, and Tuila’epa proclaimed the HRPP would remain in power.

By the following Monday, however, opposition party Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) had taken a considerable lead, and on May 25 the results were confirmed: for the first time in the 21st century, Samoans had chosen a new political party to lead the government. FAST held 26 to HRPP’s 25 Parliamentary seats, and the party formed just six months before the election was set to take control of Samoa’s government.   

That was not the only first. The new Prime Minister that FAST vowed to elect was Her Excellency Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa. A woman.

A Woman of Many Firsts

The daughter of Samoa’s first prime minister, Fiamē was elected to Parliament in 1985. She was appointed by Tuila’epa as Samoa’s first female Member of the Cabinet, and later became the first female Deputy Prime Minister. Once one of Tuila’epa’s strongest allies, Fiamē broke with him last year over the LTC controversy and was forced out of the HRPP.

During the election cycle, Fiamē and FAST increased turnout and voter participation, changing the staid political scene in the country. Because they could not access government-controlled radio and TV, FAST shifted its messaging, creating the first Twitter and Facebook pages for a political party in Samoa. FAST’s “political road shows,” were another key to success, bringing the party’s leaders into communities and homes of potential voters. When these efforts paid off and Fiamē was sworn in, she became the first female Prime Minister of Samoa and only the second female head of state in the Pacific Islands.

More Choices Ahead for Samoa

Since 1984, IRI has worked across the globe to strengthen political parties because history has shown that democracies flourish when governments put citizens first. This is made possible when party platforms and governments are centered around issues rather than personalities. IRI is preparing to hold its first Virtual Leadership Training School for Polynesian Women in Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu next month, and FAST’s success as a new political party will be an important topic of discussion. In a country like Samoa that is comprised of two large islands spread across an area five times the size of Manhattan, maintaining a citizen-first government will be a challenge for FAST.

Evidence shows governments are most successful when women are included. As IRI has previously noted, when women are involved in the negotiating process, peace agreements are 64 percent less likely to fail. In countries like Rwanda, where women make up more than 50 percent of Parliament, policy makers have crossed party lines to tackle controversial issues. However, women’s inclusion in government needs to start in political parties; when parties include women in leadership, men and women say they have greater confidence in government.

The Independent State of Samoa has a unique opportunity to impart the benefits of robust political parties and why they are needed in strong democracies. But Samoa has another important lesson to share across the region: #DemocracyNeedsWomen leading those political parties as well.

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