Samoa’s caretaker leader rejects swearing in of first woman PM as ‘treason’

FAST party leaders Fiame Naomi Mata'afa with colleagues
FAST party leaders, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio (seated right) and Laauli Leuatea Polataivao (standing) checking documentation for the MPs' swearing-in ceremony. Image: Talamua

RNZ Pacific

Samoa’s election-winning FAST party leader Fiame Naomi Mata’afa has been named the country’s first woman Prime Minister, in a swearing-in ceremony her rival called “treason”.

She named her cabinet this afternoon in the ceremony in a large marque tent erected on the Fale Fono (Parliament) grounds.

Whether this ad-hoc ceremony will be recognised as legal and official remains to be seen.

The rival Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) was not there, nor was there any sign of the judiciary, the speaker, or the head of state. The appointed clerk of parliament acted as FAST’s main legal counsel.

FAST had this morning been barred from entering the Parliament building after Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, who has been Prime Minister for 23 years and leader of HRPP, directed the Speaker to lock the doors.

Under the constitution, Parliament must sit within 45 days of an election and today was the last day for this to be possible.

FAST said the caretaker government’s actions were “tantamount to a coup”.

‘Bloodless … but a coup’
“I think a coup would be accurate,” spokesman for FAST Lance Apulu said when asked to describe the events of this morning. “Bloodless, but they are actually coups.

“The FAST party are abiding by the rule of law. Yesterday the latest declaration was given by the Supreme Court … they are pushing for the government to abide by the rule of law.”

The Samoan ad-hoc swearing-in ceremony
The Samoan ad-hoc swearing-in ceremony today with a former Head of State among those present. Image: Ame Tanielu/RNZ

A Supreme Court decision on May 17 broke a post-election deadlock by confirming the new FAST party had a 26-25 seat majority over the HRPP.

Then, a decision by the Supreme Court on Sunday overruled an edict late on Saturday by the Head of State withdrawing a directive for Parliament to open today.

HRPP, which has ruled Samoa for nearly 40 years, has been refusing to hand over power. Following the swearing in, Tuila’epa called the FAST Party MPs treasonous and promised legal action.

His words have been translated.

“This is treason,” he said. “This is law-breaking in its highest degree.”

Country’s chiefs disrespected
He said FAST had disrespected the country’s chiefs and leaders and were mentally unfit.

“I have a piece of encouragement for my government officials/public servants today: do not be worried, this party is doing what they can… all there is to do for now is to continue our hard work,” he said.

“I’m just wondering if ‘those guys’ are all there mentally… this isn’t and will not be a government of fools.”

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi
Caretaker leader Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi speaking after the ceremony … “this isn’t and will not be a government of fools.” Image: RNZ screengrab

He said only the Head of State could call Parliamentary meetings and swear people in.

“None of what they did is legitimate. The Devil has won and taken over them.”

When asked about the fact that it is Day 45 since the general election, and Samoa had not had a Parliament sitting, Tuila’epa said: “I’m going to answer that question at another, more appropriate time.”

It is probably fortunate Samoa has no armed forces, but there is now immense pressure on the public service and Police Commissioner Fuiavailili Egon Keil.

Enforcing the law
This morning, the commissioner said his role was to enforce the law and he was doing that today by escorting Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese to and from Parliament in an attempt to uphold the Supreme Court order to convene parliament.

The judiciary – already under immense pressure, which it has so far held up to – is likely to be put to the test again.

Crises like these are where the head of state is meant to step in, but Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aleto’a Sualauvi has shown that he has been politically swayed, acting on the advice of Tuila’epa and the HRPP Attorney-General, and lacking his own independent advisers.

Even so, he is not in Apia and there has been no word from him today.

Tuila’epa said he wondered how the ad-hoc ceremony made Samoa look to other countries.

“They used to look at us with respect, now we are seen as fools … they have disrespected the dignities of the chiefs and leaders of their districts with their actions today.

“That was a joke, a joke. Oh my, where have we ever seen a Speaker sworn in, in a tent? Shameful.”

“I say that is enough foolishness, enough disrespect. But I am thankful to the Chief Justice for not being present at this tomfoolery.”

FSM recognises Fiame as PM
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at her post-cabinet briefing this afternoon, that the country would encourage “all parties and political leaders” to uphold the election outcome and the decisions of institutions including the judiciary, and the rule of law.

Ardern said New Zealand was not in a position to be playing “any interventionist role”.

She said despite the fact there was a “changeable” political situation, reports were that things were calm, in line with calls from political and faith community leaders.

The Federated States of Micronesia tonight said it “recognised the legitimacy of Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa”.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

Timeline of events leading to Samoa’s political crisis

  • Friday, April 9 – Election: HRPP and newcomer FAST 25 seats each, with one to an independent.
  • Tuesday, April 20 – Extra woman’s seat appointed, giving HRPP 26 seats to FAST’s 25.
  • Wednesday, April 21 – Independent Tuala Tevaga Ponifasio commits to FAST giving them 26 seats continuing the electoral impasse.
  • Thursday, April 22 – FAST challenges the extra women’s seat saying the Constitution specifies a minimum five women’s seats with the lawsuit to be heard in Supreme Court on Wednesday, May 5.
  • Friday, April 30 – Electoral petitions due.
  • Tuesday, May 4 – Electoral petitions given until the following Tuesday to sort out arguments.
  • Tuesday evening, May 4 – HoS – O Le Ao O Le Malo – Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aleto’a Sualauvi II – makes surprise proclamation that a new election is being called for May 21 to break deadlock.
  • Wednesday, May 5 – Attorney General calls for the Supreme Court case challenging the extra women’s seat be thrown out due to new elections. *Will reconvene on Friday and have tomorrow to sort arguments.
  • Thursday, May 6 – HoS under advice from government proclaims no new candidates can run in by-election.
  • Friday, May 7 – Supreme Court agrees to hear a challenge to the constitutional legality of snap-elections and the extra, unelected sixth women’s seat.
  • Friday, May 8 – Tuila’epa tells local media he was appointed by God after protests against him outside the Supreme Court.
  • Thursday, May 13 – Supreme Court rejects attempt by Attorney-General to delay a challenge to the snap-elections which was to be heard on Friday, May 14.
  • Friday, May 14 – Supreme Court hears challenge against the constitutionality of the Head of State voiding the April 9 election and calling a new one on May 21.
  • Monday, May 17 – Supreme Court hears challenge against extra women’s seat, voiding it and giving FAST 26-25 majority. Finds in favour of FAST’s challenge on grounds extra seat was declared after the election results had already been confirmed.
  • Monday, May 17 – Supreme Court finds Head of State acted beyond his constitutional powers in calling a snap election and voids the ballot, clearing the way for FAST to declare a majority and government.
  • Tuesday, May 18 – FAST asks Head of State to convene Parliament.
  • Wednesday, May 19 – HRPP to challenge Supreme Court judgments, advises HoS not to call Parliament. Matai and supporters of HoS arrive in Apia by busload following threats to His Highness on social media.
  • Wednesday, May 19 – HoS agrees to call Parliament. FAST asks for Friday but HoS prefers Monday, the last possible day to do so.
  • Friday, May 21 – Court of Appeal rejects a stay on the ruling voiding the 6th women’s seat. FAST majority stands.
  • Friday, May 21 – HoS calls for Parliament to convene on Monday, May 24.
  • 7pm Saturday, May 22 – HoS proclaims that Parliament will be suspended until further notice.
  • Early Sunday, May 23 – FAST files urgent call for Supreme Court to hear challenge to HoS’s new edict. Case heard in-chambers and proclamation ruled unlawful.
  • Monday, May 24 – FAST party arrives at Parliament to find the doors locked. Tuila’epa says only the Head of State has the power to convene Parliament and his HRPP party remains the government.
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