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Newly elected Samoan PM locked out of parliament

May 24, 2021

Samoa's first female Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata'afa was locked out of parliament by the incumbent Malielegaoi. She held her own swearing-in ceremony, but will likely face legal hurdles

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa in Apia. (Photo by Handout / Fa’atuatua I le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) / AFP)
Mata’afa's supporters sang hymns of protest outside parliament.Image: FAST/AFP

A political crisis in the Pacific island of Samoa deepened on Monday after the country's newly-elected prime minister was barred from entering parliament.

Fiame Naomi Mata'afa's party claimed victory after the contested April 9 election, putting her on track to become Samoa's first female prime minister —  and ousting Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi who had ruled for 22 years.

However, Fiame has been locked out of parliament as of Monday, as her predecessor refused to accept defeat, raising fear of a coup.

Fiame had arrived at the parliament with judges in formal robes and horsehair wigs, for the swearing-in ceremony. They were barred from entering the parliamentary chambers, even as police forces were present.

She was later sworn in at a ceremony in a makeshift tent, as the incumbent still refused to step down. The ad hoc swearing-in is likely to face legal challenges.

Parliament in crisis

"We need brave Samoans right now... to uphold our election," the prime minister-elect told her followers, who sang hymns and called for the election results to be honored. "There will be a time when we will meet again, inside that House. Let us leave it to the law." 

Samoan courts have confirmed Fiame's narrow victory by one vote last month. The constitution requires parliament to convene within 45 days after an election result, Monday marking the last day for it. 

Tuilaepa held a press conference, where he proclaimed his administration was still in charge. Details of his speech were shared by journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson.

"They have desecrated the grounds of Parliament and have made a ruckus in our hallowed grounds, they are trying to use force to open the House of Parliament. That's breaking and entering. We will need to address that and do something about it," Tuilaepa said in his address. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in an interview: "We support Samoa's democracy and we would call on others to do the same. This is a big change for Samoa over what's been occurring in the past 20 years in their elections. Our call would be to maintain and uphold the rule of law."

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also pushed to let the democratic process play out, and said, "We have faith in Samoa's institutions including the judiciary."

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Election results

The elections ended in a tie between Fiame's FAST Party and Tuilaepa's HRP Party, with one independent candidate. As the independent candidate sided with Fiame, the electoral commissioner appointed another HRP candidate to conform to gender quotas. 

As the island nation was heading to another election, Fiame's party appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the new candidate and canceled plans for fresh elections. 

The head of the state Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi had scrapped plans of parliamentary convention, which was overturned by a rare Supreme Court sitting on Sunday. 

Fiame's victory was seen as a landmark in the politics of Samoa, which is largely conservative and Christian, and also has had very few female leaders. 

During her election campaign, she staunchly criticized the ruling government. She also pledged to stop a Beijing-backed $100 million (€82 million) port development project. The country, with a population of almost 200,000 is already indebted to China. 

tg/sms (AFP, AP)