More than 120,000 voters went to the polls to elect a new government in Samoa Friday, with the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) facing its strongest challenge in nearly forty years.
The Samoa Electoral Commission expected to have a result by early Saturday in the small Pacific island nation, where voting is compulsory.
Advance voting in the past four days showed the HRPP, headed by longtime Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, holding 25 seats with the newly formed opposition FAST party on 21 in the 51-member parliament.
"Across several constituencies, FAST candidates are chipping away at the lead held by government MPs on their seats, including senior cabinet ministers," The Samoa Observer reported.
The election has pitted Malielegaoi, who has been prime minister for the past 22 years, against former ally Fiame Naomi Mataafa.
She resigned as deputy prime minister and defected to the FAST party late last year following disagreement over planned legislation which opponents said undermined the constitution.
Friday's poll saw complaints that some voters were delayed because of a shortage of buses and insufficient capacity on boats from outlying islands.
"I waited four hours to get on the ferry," said Epelu Kirifi, after arriving on the main island of Savaii under the requirement for people to return to their home district to call their ballots.
Electoral commissioner Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio defended the system, saying it was to ensure people voted for a candidate to represent where they were from and "not a bunch of town people voting for a rural candidate."
He described voting as "smooth ... for those who made it to the right booths."
Mataafa has found support from many in the vast Samoan diaspora, but under Covid-enforced travel restrictions the expatriates have not been able to return and Samoan law does not allow overseas voting.
Iati Iati, a New Zealand-based lecturer in politics and international relations, said the overseas voting policy could change if the HRRP lose power.
"The opposition has indicated that they support some form of overseas voting," he said.
Samoa had been one of several Pacific nations among the most successful in the world at keeping out coronavirus after closing its borders early, despite the huge cost to its tourism-reliant economy. It registered its first case in November.
The country, with a population of around 220,000, gained independence in 1962 after nearly 50 years as a New Zealand protectorate.