By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — Samoa, a small island nation in the South Pacific, is currently having two governments both sworn in with one claiming that they have been appointed to govern by God and the other claiming they have got the peoples’ mandate. The political crisis is also embroiled in arguments over the role of Chinese investments in the island, which was a former colony of New Zealand that gained independence in 1962.
Samoa (which was known as Western Samoa until 1998) is a unitary parliamentary democracy, a sovereign republic, and a member of the Commonwealth. It has a population of 202,506 according to a 2020 census, but there are as many citizens living overseas as in New Zealand and Australia. Most of them have not been able to vote in the recent elections because of strict border closures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Samoa has no recorded cases of the virus.
The current political crisis began on April 9, when the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) suffered a stunning defeat to Fa’atuatua I le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) a party that was formed only nine months earlier. HRPP went to the election with having 47 of the 51 seats in parliament and with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegoi predicting they will win 42 seats. Both parties ended up winning 25 seats each with 1 independent winning the other seat. He later joined the FAST as a coalition partner giving them the right to form a new government.
FAST leader Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was the former Deputy Prime Minister and she resigned from the party in late 2020 and in March this year she joined the opposition FAST as its new leader. If she succeeds in forming the new government, she will become the first female democratically elected leader of Samoa.
But, ironically the caretaker government of Prime Minister Tuilaepa used a gender empowerment provision in the constitution to have 10 percent of members of parliament elected to be female, by appointing an extra member of parliament, a female from HRPP, that will tilt the balance in favour of HRPP continuing as the governing party.
The decision taken by the Election Commissioner made the party tallies 26 each and President Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II, after giving the endorsement to have an extra MP, stepped in and ordered a new election for May 21 to break the deadlock.
Tuimalealiifano, who is a lay preacher of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, is the head of state of Samoa, which is a ceremonial post, with the executive power held by the democratically elected Prime Minister (leader of the party that wins a parliamentary majority at an election). The Head of State is elected for a 5-year term (which is renewable) by the Legislative Assembly (Parliament).
The constitution stipulates that this person needs to be related to one of the country’s four paramount chiefs. Tuimalealiifano is a great-grandson of one of the chiefs Mau Movement leaders Tuimaleali’ifano Fa’aoloi’i.
The HRPP has been in power in Samoa for four decades, and Tuilaepa has been the Prime Minister for 23 years. He endorsed the President’s order for fresh elections describing it as making the peoples’ will more “clear”. In the staunchly conservative Christian nation, he has also asserted that he has been appointed to rule Samoa by the highest authority of all “God”, hinting that he may bring religion into a re-run of the elections.
FAST was formed following a rushing of 3 bills into law in parliament that fundamentally altered Samoa’s constitutional, judiciary, and customary framework. Then Deputy PM Fiame resigned from the government in protest. There are fears that these changes may have been made under pressure from foreign investors. The outcome of the current election turmoil may also impact Samoa’s growing relationship with China.
PM-elect Fiame has called a $100 million port development project backed by Beijing as excessive and has pledged to stop it as the nation is already heavily in debt to China, according to a news report from Radio New Zealand. But she has also promised to maintain good relations with China, while attending to address more pressing needs in the country, where its tourism and trade-related economy has suffered from border closures.
On May 24, the political crisis came to a head when the newly elected MP’s of FAST party and their supporters went to parliament house to take their oath of office and install Fiame as the new Prime Minister.
The caretaker government of Tuilaepa has locked the doors to the chambers, but the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who accompanied them conducted the swearing-in ceremony in a tent on the parliamentary garden, that included the cabinet of ministers. This seems to accomplish a requirement of the constitution that the new parliament has to meet within 45 days of the elections and May 24 was the last date.
The Supreme Court had earlier ordered this, and also there were at least three other judgments such as making the appointment of an extra MP illegal, that went against the caretaker HRPP government. But Tuilaepa doesn’t appear to give up the fight to remain in power.
He is already the longest-serving Prime Minister of a South Pacific country. While both the head of state and speaker of the parliament are backing Tuilaepa, on May 27 the Attorney General (AG) launched an astounding attack on the country’s judiciary.
The Supreme Court hearing on the legitimacy of the swearing-in outside parliamentary chambers has been postponed to next week after the AG’s office called for the withdrawal of all local judges from the hearing citing a potential conflict of interest. They have also claimed that Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese may be in contempt of parliament for holding the swearing-in ceremony in a tent. But the Supreme Court had ruled earlier that the parliament meets on May 24 for the new parliamentary sessions.
Samoa Observer in an editorial has defended the actions of the chief justice describing it as an action that was done “at the last minute and by the intervention of a man who acted in accordance with the high principles that befits its office”. The newspaper added, “the judiciary has shown remarkable poise throughout this political crisis and served as the defining line between chaos and order”.
With attacks on the judiciary and the push for a new election, “despite a veneer of democracy, Samoa is ominously facing an autocratic future,” argues Partricia O’Brien, a historian from Australian National University in a commentary published by The Conversation.
“The corrosion of democracy in Samoa is part of a global trend,” she adds. “China’s growing influence in Samoa under Tuilaepa shadows current events. But, in the coming days, democracy’s endurance will be tested, and, hopefully, saved by Samoa’s people and institutions”.
After Fiame was locked out on May 24, Tuilaepa held a news conference proclaiming his government remained in charge. Meanwhile, Fiame has told her supporters: “There will be a time when we will meet again, inside that House. Let us leave it to the law.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 May 2021]
Note: The author would like to acknowledge the news resources of the Asia Pacific Report in compiling this story.
Image: Samoan Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata’afa … “please think of our people and allow our government to take the reins of power from you.” Credit: FAST party FB/Screengrab
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