The political career of Tuilaepa Sailele (as he is referred to by the media) has long been overshadowed by the towering presence of the former prime minister, Tofilau Eti Alesana. Three decades of Tofilau's leadership began with his election to the first postindependence Fono in 1967. At that time, he was allied with the first prime minister, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi IV. This group, however, was defeated in 1976 when Tupuola Taisi Efi became prime minister. Amidst the controversy over the matai electoral system, Tofilau was among the politicians who formed the HRPP, in opposition to Tupuola. The general election of 1982 was followed by a series of legal challenges and changes in leadership. In December of that year, HRPP's by-election victory made Tofilau prime minister, beginning an unprecedented 16-year reign.
Tuilaepa Sailele returned from his education in New Zealand to take up public service positions in the economic and finance ministries. In this capacity, he participated in international conferences on economic matters. In 1981, he was elected to the Fono as an HRPP supporter. His educational qualifications and public service experience made him a natural choice for finance minister in 1988, a position he held continuously until 1998. In 1991, he was named deputy prime minister.
During the 1990s, Tofilau's leadership was shaken by the nation's poor economic performance and some questionable policies, such as the proposed sale of Samoan passports to Asians. During his latter years in office, he was frequently absent from the country, traveling to New Zealand for medical treatment. During these periods of absence or
incapacity, Tuilaepa Sailele was in effect the prime minister, speaking for the country and its government. Finally, when death became imminent, Tofilau resigned his office, and in November 1998, the Fono elected Tuilaepa to become the next prime minister by a margin that surprised many observers. He retained the position through the 2001 election as the HRPP took 23 seats (45%) in the Fono.