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Paradise lost: Samoa’s democracy in peril

How the nation’s first female prime minister came to be sworn into office in a tent outside Parliament

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson
27 May 2021, 10.50am
Samoa’s first female prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa
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UN Women Asia & the Pacific licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the morning of Monday 24 May, Samoa’s chief justice arrived at the country’s parliament to swear in a new government, only to find the doors firmly locked. He stood momentarily, then turned around and walked back to the courthouse, followed by the entire judiciary.

It was a moment that would stay with me: 45 days after Samoa’s general election – the deadline for swearing in a new government – it was confirmation that the country’s caretaker government had disregarded the highest legal authority of the land in order to prevent a peaceful transition of power.

The locked doors indicated that the outgoing government did not respect the decision of the supreme court to the extent that it was willing to stop the swearing-in of a new government – among which was to be the nation’s first female prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

“What we all witnessed on Monday morning was perhaps the lowest and most disgraceful action yet,” said Mata’afa, leader of the Samoa United in One as Faith (FAST) party, of the debacle.

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A deadline approaches

The general election held on 9 April had initially resulted in a tie between FAST and the Human Rights Protection Party (HRRP), which is led by Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, the country’s prime minister since 1998.

With both parties having secured 25 of the 51 seats available, several unsuccessful attempts were made to keep FAST out of power.

When the Samoan electoral commission awarded the HRPP an additional seat, increasing the number of representatives to 52, FAST successfully challenged the decision at the supreme court. FAST also won a court challenge against the outgoing government’s effort to declare election results void after parliament’s sole independent representative joined Mata’afa’s party, giving it a wafer-thin majority.

With these two supreme court decisions, FAST was recognised as the clear winner, and Mata’afa as the incoming prime minister.

For several weeks, Samoa’s head of state, Tuimalealiifano Va'aleto'a Eti Sualauvi II, who is responsible for issuing the proclamation to convene parliament, remained silent. On Friday 21 May, he ordered parliament to convene for the following Monday – before almost immediately reversing his decision, issuing another proclamation that suspended the convening of parliament.

There was a clear divide among supporters of Mata'afa and Malielegaoli, with each believing their own leader to be the PM

FAST went back to court to challenge the suspension, and won. A few hours later, however, the speaker of the house under the outgoing government, Leaupepe Toleafoa Apulu Faafisi, issued a notice to say that he was postponing the reopening of parliament, effectively overriding the supreme court’s decision.

The move was unprecedented. Legal experts have claimed that since the role of speaker was vacant following the dissolution of parliament, Faafisi had no legal authority to issue the notice.

Aware that a failure to swear in the winning party within 45 days of the election could lead to the results being invalidated and a new election declared, FAST took matters into their own hands.

On 24 May, the party conducted an alternative swearing-in ceremony (the legal basis of which is currently disputed) in a tent pitched on Tiafau, the grounds of parliament. Hundreds gathered to welcome prime-minister-elect Mata'afa, along with the 25 elected members of her party, and their supporters and invited guests. Representatives of two of Samoa’s traditional chief families attended the ceremony: there are four paramount families in total, and Mata’afa belongs to a third.

People attending the ceremony sang hymns and traditional songs about Samoa’s fight for independence. It was reminiscent of Samoa’s first day of independence, when Mata'afa’s own father had been sworn in as the first prime minister of Samoa.

As the ceremony unfolded, Malielegaoli and members of his party, all wearing blue, were gathered a few hundred metres away. “Samoa has now seen the nerve of these people, they did not get what they wanted, now they have gone ahead and done it themselves,” Malielegaoli told his supporters.

That night across Samoa, families went about preparing for the next day, laying out their mats for bed, pulling down mosquito nets and settling down to sleep. In Apia, the capital city, FAST’s swearing-in ceremony was complete and there was a sense of accomplishment and celebration among supporters.

The next day, however, Samoa’s attorney general declared the swearing-in unconstitutional. A visibly upset Malielegaoli appeared on television to tell the world how disgusted he was by the FAST’s actions.

On social media, there was a clear divide among supporters of Mata'afa and Malielegaoli, with each side believing their leader to be prime minister.

An uphill battle

Today, this uncertainty remains, as the two parties do battle in court to settle the legality of the swearing-in ceremony. One thing is for sure: the head of state failed to meet his responsibilities. Indeed, Sualauvi has not been seen since his controversial proclamation to suspend the convening of Parliament.

Malielegaoli’s legacy as a respected leader of the Pacific’s most stable democracy has crumbled in the past 45 days, due to his obvious desire for power. His disregard for the rule of law and desperate attempts to remain in office have overshadowed his achievements. In recent days, he has attempted to cast doubt on the impartiality of the supreme court.

Mata'afa, on the other hand, has maintained her calm, chiefly demeanour throughout the ordeal, speaking to the Samoan people in a respectable, considerate and calculated manner. For a long time she was a lone woman in Parliament, so she has no problem holding her own in any crowd, but the events since 9 April have truly demonstrated her resilience.

“We reclaimed the dignity of our country, destroyed in the morning but reasserted in the afternoon, in the presence of three of the four Paramount families whose blood weaves the fabric of this country together. Democracy cannot be denied, democracy must prevail always. There can be no exceptions from this fundamental principle,” Mata’afa said recently.

Her journey has not been smooth, and she will fight an uphill battle to officially be declared prime minister. But for the time being, as the world looks on, Mata’afa has proven herself a worthy leader of a sovereign island nation, whose democracy hangs in the balance.

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