While its island neighbors in the Pacific weathered military coups and internal volatility, Samoa long followed a predictable political course, keeping the same leader in power for more than two decades.
But as the country is set to usher in its first female prime minister, that status quo has been dramatically upended. The incoming leader, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, represents a sharp break from what she describes as a worrying slide away from the rule of law, and she has vowed to scrap a major infrastructure project backed by China, her country’s largest creditor.
And her ascension itself, after a dizzying seven-week period of uncertainty and intrigue that followed the April 9 election, has sent a rare charge through Samoan politics.
First, there was a dead heat at the polls. Ms. Mata’afa’s upstart party won as many seats in Parliament as the one led by the swaggering prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. An independent candidate took the remaining seat, making him a kingmaker.
That set off feverish courting of that candidate by both parties. But the election commission intervened — paradoxically, blocking the rise of Ms. Mata’afa with the use of a law meant to ensure that more women served in Parliament.
Under that law, women must hold at least 10 percent of the seats. The April election produced a count of 9.8 percent, which the electoral commission deemed insufficient. So it appointed another female member of Parliament — one representing Mr. Tuilaepa’s party. That handed him a majority, and a path to remaining in office.
It didn’t last long. The independent candidate soon threw his weight behind Ms. Mata’afa’s party, and Samoa’s judiciary later tossed the additional female member out of Parliament, putting Ms. Mata’afa’s party in the majority. Although Mr. Tuilaepa has yet to concede, Ms. Mata’afa is scheduled to be sworn in as prime minister on Monday.
Perhaps Samoa can then catch its breath.
Ms. Mata’afa’s climb to the top job in Samoa — a country that was called Western Samoa until 1997 to distinguish it from American Samoa — is more than four decades in the making. Ms. Mata’afa, 64, a high chief who holds the title fiame, was propelled into political leadership after her father, the country’s first prime minister, died when she was 18. Not long after, she became the matai, or head of her family — an unusually early rise.
“As an 18-year-old, I was looking forward to going to university, getting a degree, getting a job, maybe getting married,” she said by telephone on Friday. Always interested in politics, she had expected to move into the field over time. “But things were sped up unexpectedly. Sometimes life doesn’t work out necessarily how you thought it might.”
She had long been expected to become prime minister one day — but as Mr. Tuilaepa’s successor, not his opponent, said Iati Iati, a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Ms. Mata’afa spent three decades in Mr. Tuilaepa’s party, the Human Rights Protection Party, eventually becoming its deputy leader. But she left it in November over what she saw as a slide toward autocracy, including legislation that threatened to change the structure of the Samoan judiciary.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision to make,” Ms. Mata’afa said. “What really led me to make the decision to step away was the dismantling of essentially the rule of law.”
“Because of that huge majority that the H.R.P.P. had,” she added, “it became a lot more rampant, even the internal checks weren’t there — I was getting to feel a bit like the lone voice. If you can’t do it from the inside, you have to step outside.”
She became the leader of a new opposition party, known as FAST, which drew a number of other H.R.P.P. defectors.
“She’s such a strong, powerful, well-respected political leader, and she’s really probably the only politician in Samoa at the moment who can counter Tuilaepa,” said Kerryn Baker, a researcher at the Australian National University who is an expert on parliamentary gender quotas in the region.
Ms. Mata’afa has already pledged to take one significant step away from Mr. Tuilaepa, 76, the second-longest-serving prime minister in the world.
On Thursday, she announced that she would cancel a $100 million wharf development backed by China, saying that her small country of 200,000 people did not need such a large infrastructure project. China is Samoa’s largest creditor, accounting for about 40 percent, or some $160 million, of its external debts.
Mr. Tuilaepa has been a staunch ally of Beijing for decades. While Ms. Mata’afa said she wanted to preserve relations with China, her pledge to shelve the wharf project has raised questions about the future of those ties, Dr. Iati said.
“What is Samoa’s position in relation to China, what is the Pacific’s position in relation to China?” he said. “It’s got people examining China’s role in the country and in the region as a whole.”
Ms. Mata’afa has also promised to focus on sustainable development as Pacific nations suffer from the effects of climate change, and to work to ensure women’s continued participation in politics.
One of Samoa’s first female members of Parliament, Ms. Mata’afa has been a fierce defender of the parliamentary gender quota. She characterizes it not as a way to increase women’s participation, but as “legislation to ensure that it does not fall below this level.”
Samoa’s welfare system, unlike those of more developed nations, is still largely family-based, “and therefore women still carry a lot of that responsibility and burden,” Ms. Mata’afa added. “Women have to see politics as an area where they’ve seen other women be able to achieve in it, so it’s not something that is insurmountable.”
“My goal for women is that they fulfill their potential, that we remove any barriers that might be there for women, to enable them to make that contribution,” she said.
But with more than 20 legal challenges to her election still pending, some worry that Ms. Mata’afa may yet be barred from assuming the top office.
“The H.R.P.P. and Prime Minister Tuilaepa — they’re not done,” said Patricia O’Brien, an expert on the region at the Australian National University. “They’re going to cast doubt on the results, they’re going to cast doubt on the court cases, they’re trying to do things to muddy the waters and to disrupt an orderly transition of power.”
Mr. Tuilaepa offered a hint of how he saw his place in Samoa this month as he responded to a protest of about 100 people calling on him to concede.
“I am appointed by God,” he told local news media. “They should go to a church and pray instead of protesting in front of the courthouse.”
Ms. Mata’afa, for her part, said she just wanted to get on with the job.
“It’s a free world; he can talk about anything he likes,” she said. “I just like to spend my energy talking about things that need to be addressed.”