Authorities have imposed a 48-hour ban on alcohol and declared a public holiday as Samoans choose between Malielegaoi, who has led the Pacific island nation for 22 years, and his former ally Fiame Naomi Mataafa, daughter of Samoa’s first prime minister.
Mataafa resigned as deputy prime minister late last year, before taking over as head of the opposition FAST party, which won 39 percent of early votes counted this week.
Christina Laalaai-Tausa, a New Zealand-based Samoan political scientist, said their election chances had been hurt by Covid-imposed travel restrictions and a law that stipulated voters must be in the country for six months prior to the election.
Nearly 130,000 people have registered to cast their ballot in Samoa, and Laalaai-Tausa estimated there were another 40,000-50,000 overseas who have been shut out — up to a quarter of the population.
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“This is usually the time we return to Samoa but we haven’t been able to do anything about that,” she told AFP.
“This will have a big impact on both the main parties but what it would seem the newly formed (FAST) party would have more support overseas.”
The vote is the first significant challenge to Malielegaoi’s Human Rights Protection Party, which has been in power for nearly four decades.
The FAST was formed following discontent with the government’s handling of a measles epidemic in 2019 that killed 83 people, more than three-quarters of them children under five.
Mataafa also rejected a new law which she said would worsen corruption, leading Malielegaoi to accuse her of treason.
Despite the challenge, the prime minister has predicted his party will increase its number of seats in the 51-member parliament from 36 to 45.
“I am not worried and I am confident,” he said in a radio interview.
A decision to ban the sale of alcohol on Thursday and Friday, and to make both days a holiday, was “a safeguard to ensure the safety of voters and candidates,” political scientist Laalaai-Tausa said, adding there was no history of trouble around Samoan elections.
“But trying to restrict bribery before an election is a concern.”
Samoa had been one of several Pacific nations among the most successful in the world at keeping out the virus after closing their borders early in response to the threat, despite the huge cost to tourism-reliant economies. It registered its first case in November.