PAS: Samoan attitudes to democracy


With extremely few exceptions, Pacific democracies have proven highly resilient in the postcolonial era. Samoan democracy is one of the oldest and, until recently, most stable in the Pacific.

It has often been described as a hybridised or traditional system of democracy, in which traditional systems under the Fa‘amatai have been incorporated into the modern democratic system (Huffer and So‘o 2005).

This is outlined in the 57 page Pacific Attitudes Survey (PAS) that was developed in partnership with researchers from The Australian
National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) and Swinburne University of Technology (SUT).

The pilot survey in Samoa was conducted in a partnership with the National University of Samoa (NUS). The survey was conducted from December 2020 to January 2021 given the challenges of COVID-19 and the associated complications this created
on the ground.

The Pacific Attitudes Survey for Samoa is the first largescale, nationally representative popular political attitudes survey conducted in the Pacific region.

The report presents the findings of the survey comprised of 181 questions set out in 26 thematic modules covering a range of topics including attitudes to democracy, national identity, tradition, leadership, governance, development and international relations.

“Pacific democracies are highly diverse in terms of their formal democratic institutions, including forms of parliamentary representation and electoral systems.

More importantly, Pacific democracies have been adapted in a myriad of ways to reflect local traditions and circumstances, such that the nature and experience of Pacific democracies are often quite different to democratic systems in other parts of the world.”

The survey cited an example, that only matai title holders are able to run for parliament.

“The incorporation of tradition in Samoa’s democracy has been considered an important reason for its stability, providing balance and local legitimacy to an imported parliamentary system (La‘alaai-Tausa 2020).

However, some scholars have argued that the incorporation of tradition has acted to undermine fundamental liberal democratic standards of
democratic participation and accountability.

“Lawson (1993), for example, has argued that the traditional system of Fa‘amatai has acted as a barrier to the proper functioning of democracy. She also argues that some aspects of traditional elitism have undermined these standards (Lawson 1996).

Indeed, the very stability of Samoan democracy, reflected in the longevity of the former HRPP government, raises the question of whether traditional notions of government have worked to limit democratic contestability and accountability in defence of notions of tradition and stability.

These debates, along with the recent, historic change of government in 2021, highlight the timeliness and relevance of understanding popular
political attitudes to democracy in Samoa.”

The PAS asked a range of questions to improve understanding of how Samoans understand democracy, its value to their society, and how they rate its performance as a political system. While the Pacific is generally noted for its constitutional history of elites’ commitments to democracy, the survey seeks to assess if this is matched by popular values, and popular rejection of authoritarian alternatives.

The PAS also seeks to place Pacific understandings of democracy in an internationally comparative context. This is especially pertinent in recent times where global trends point towards the rise of illiberal democracies, populism and democratic recession (Diamond 2015).

Whether a distinctive local understanding of democracy exists and remains resilient against these global trends is explored
through respondent data in Samoa. It should also be noted that the need to understand popular attitudes to democracy in Samoa was given
fresh relevance by the national election in April 2021, and the historic change of government that ultimately

Taken as a whole, the survey results below suggest that Samoans value their democratic institutions very strongly. Moreover, Samoans have
adapted their democratic institutions and values in line with deeper traditions of Samoan community and identity to form a distinctive notion of democracy with strong elements of consensus.