Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa held a swearing-in ceremony in a tent after her political opponent refused to step down from leadership. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
The first woman elected as prime minister of Samoa has been literally locked out of Parliament, as the Pacific Island nation’s long-standing leader ignores a court order to step down.The country of about 200,000 people has been plunged into a political crisis after a leadership election last month resulted in a perfect split and legal challenges. Courts ultimately ruled in favor of Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa, who in 2016 became Samoa’s first female deputy prime minister.
Mata‘afa, 64, held a swearing-in ceremony in a tent on Monday after she arrived at the parliament building in the capital city of Apia and discovered that it had been locked by allies of her political opponent, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.
Malielegaoi, who has been Samoa’s prime minister for 22 years, has refused to concede since the April 9 poll, the closest-run general election in the nation’s history. Malielegaoi is currently the world’s second-longest serving prime minister, after Cambodia’s Hun Sen.As a result, Mata‘afa and members of her Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party were forced to carry out an ad-hoc ceremony under the cover of a marquee that had been erected in Parliament’s gardens.“Democracy must prevail, always,” the FAST party said in a statement. “There can be no exceptions from this fundamental principle. Those who claim otherwise and act accordingly play with fire.”But Malielegaoi condemned the ceremony as “unlawful” and a “joke,” according to Radio New Zealand, claiming that “only the head of state, and no one else, can call parliament meetings and swear people in.”FAST party spokesperson Lance Apulu, however, said the shuttering of parliament on Monday morning was nothing short of a coup.“I think a coup would be accurate,” Apulu told RNZ. “Bloodless, but they are actually coups.”
The general election last month resulted in a tie, with the FAST party and the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) both securing 25 seats in the Parliament.This made the holder of the remaining seat, independent politician Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio, a kingmaker should he decide to support either party.But here’s where things get complicated. The election authorities intervened and handed an extra seat to a female HRPP politician who most narrowly missed the election, citing a law meant to ensure that at least 10 percent of members of Parliament are women. Before this addition, only 9.8 percent – or five out of 51 – of the elected lawmakers were female.Ponifascio then backed FAST, creating a 26-26 tie between the two parties.This deadlock was only broken after courts overturned the appointment of the 52nd lawmaker, as well as HRPP’s bid to call a fresh election for May 21, giving Mata‘afa a majority victory.Parliament was supposed to convene on Monday in order to swear in its new members. But before midnight on Saturday, Samoa’s head of state, Tuimaleali‘ifano Va‘aleto‘a Sualauvi II, cancelled the meeting without explanation. On Monday, Mata‘afa found herself physically barred from parliament. Samoa’s chief justice Satiu Simativa Perese was also locked out.
Mata‘afa’s narrow election victory was set to end nearly four decades of rule by the HRPP, which has governed mostly uninterrupted since 1982. In the event that she is allowed to form the next government, she will become the only sitting female leader of any Pacific island country. The Pacific Islands region has the lowest level of female representation in parliament in the world.
The Federated States of Micronesia became one of the first countries to formally recognize Mata‘afa as the new prime minister on Monday, stating that it “stands by the rule of law” and offering its support to the Samoan people “in this crisis.”“It is imperative that we show our friends – especially during their darkest hours – that we stand with them,” Micronesia’s President David W. Panuelo said in a statement. “Recent weeks have been very troubling for the Samoan People, who have been witnessing what is arguably a Constitutional and Political crisis.”While neither Australia nor New Zealand have officially recognised either party’s leader as prime minister at the time of writing, both countries responded to the events by expressing support for Samoa’s democratic institutions.“We hold a huge amount of trust and faith in the institutions in Samoa,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “In the judiciary, in their democracy, and of course in the outcome that the election delivered.”Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne similarly tweeted that “Australia values our close friendship with Samoa. It is important that all parties respect the rule of law and democratic processes. We have faith in Samoa’s institutions including the judiciary.”Follow Gavin on Twitter.