Samoa held its elections six weeks ago, making way for the island nation to have its first female prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa. However, Incumbent Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi’s refusal to concede set off weeks of political chaos ensued, leading to the events that took place on Monday, May 24, 2021. The resulting events have increased tension betwixt the two political parties. with both declaring they are the rightful leader of the country.
On Wednesday, May 26, the actions that Mata’afa took in response to the “bloodless coup” are being labeled “treasonous” by Malielegaoi. Prime Minister-elect says the incumbent’s active refusal to accept her victory is akin to a bloodless coup; she said, “This is an illegal takeover of the government.” After being locked out of her inauguration, her team erected a tent, and she took the oath of office, after which the incumbent prime minister declared, “This is treason and the highest form of illegal conduct.”
Expecting to be inaugurated on Monday, Prime Minister-elect Mata’afa and her supporters were prepared to form the new government. However, her opponents locked them out of the building to prevent the swearing-in ceremony. Later in the day, she and her Fa’atuatua i le Atuna Samoa un Tasi (FAST) party took oaths and appointed ministers beneath the tent on the lawn outside the Parliament building.
Mata’afa is a feminist and passionately supports equality for everyone. She is also a fervent advocate for action on climate change, which threatens the Pacific islands through rising seas and increasingly intense weather events such as cyclones. She will bring change to the status quo one-party government led by the same prime minister for nearly a quarter of a century.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled Mata’afa was duly elected and ordered the Parliament convene as prescribed by the Samoan Constitution. By law, legislators must meet within 45 days of an election, making May 24 the deadline, but the incumbent party’s leaders refused to acquiesce.
Reportedly, the person behind the lockout is the nation’s head of state Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aleto’a Sualauvi II; he is a staunch supporter of Tuilaepa. On Saturday, he claimed he was suspending Parliament for reasons he was unwilling to discuss but claims the reason would be forthcoming in due time. On Sunday, he had the full backing of Parliament’s speaker Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi.
The power struggle between the two “prime ministers” is not likely to see a quick resolution as Malielegoai is one of the longest-serving leaders worldwide — he clearly does not want to give up leadership of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP); a position he has held for 22 years.
Mata’afa was Samoa’s deputy prime minister when she defected from the HRPP party and formed FAST to protest against the current government rushing bills into law.
Origin and Events of the 5-Week Samoan Political Deadlock
The outcome of the April 9 election was a tie — 25-25. There are 46 HRPP and four Independent members of the Samoan Parliament under Malielegoai.
To change the outcome, the HRPP countered by claiming the country’s Electoral Commission ruled that not enough women members were elected to Parliament, so they awarded an extra seat. Their late-night maneuver gave Malielegoai 26 votes to secure another five years as the country’s leader.
At the same time, Tuala Tevaga Isoefo Ponifasio confirmed he would join the opposition FAST party. He was the sole Independent member elected; his vote created yet another tie — 26-26.
Both parties filed legal challenges. Nonetheless, on May 4, Sualauvi, the head of state under the incumbent Prime Minister, called for new elections to be held on May 21. He asserted his “firm belief that given the facts, that there is no majority to form a parliament” and declared new elections were necessary to allow the people to elect their new government.
Critics called Sualauvi’s decision unconstitutional, and members of the FINE party asserted the government was trying to stay in power using deception.
The Samoan Supreme Court agreed, referring to the country’s constitution in their ruling. They stated it does not give the Head of State the authority to set new elections. The justices declared the April 9 election was lawful and the outcome valid.
They further decreed the Parliament must be convened within 45 days of the election. As mentioned earlier, that date should have been May 24.
The justices found the HRPP’s appointment of an extra female legislator unconstitutional and invalid in an earlier ruling. With that declaration, the incumbent Prime Minister’s vote tally was dropped to 25, and the FAST party held enough votes to form a new government.
Mata’afa told reporters she was feeling extremely thankful:
I think today’s victories are victories of the law and rule of law that we’ve been advocating for.
The incumbent Prime Minister plans to appeal the Supreme Court’s rulings and launch further court challenges. During a press conference, Malielegaoi clearly dismissed the court, saying that there is only one government. He intends to stay in his role and operate the country as usual.
In reality, both Mata’afa and Maliegaoi claim the position of Samoa’s Prime Minister. Two leaders in one Democratic government cannot exist. Experts are concerned that the current political strife will evolve into civil unrest and possible bloodshed.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
CBS News: Samoa swears in first female leader in a tent after she’s locked out of Parliament amid power struggle
The Washington Post:‘ Bloodless coup’: Samoa’s first female leader locked out of her own swearing-in ceremony; by Michael E. Miller
RNZ: Samoa’s Speaker disregards Supreme Court ruling
ABC News Australia: Samoa’s political crisis deepens as two rivals claim prime ministership
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of UN Women Asia and the Pacific’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of UN Women’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy by SiBr4 Courtesy of Wikimedia – Public Domain License