29 May 2021

How will the Samoan constitutional crisis end?

From Saturday Morning, 8:15 am on 29 May 2021

Samoa found itself in a constitutional crisis this week when the caretaker HRPP government locked the doors to parliament in an attempt to stop prime minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata'afa from being sworn into office following her FAST Party’s one-seat election win.

The island nation now finds itself in the position of having two governments claiming a mandate to rule, and the UN is urging the party leaders to find a solution through discussion.

Fiame Naomi Mataafa

Fiame Naomi Mataafa Photo: Ame Tanielu

Pacific Environment Weekly editor Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson has been covering events surrounding Samoa’s election and says culturally Fiame has been endorsed.

She told Saturday Morning this was the first time she has witnessed such a political situation in Samoa.

Cherelle Jackson

Cherelle Jackson Photo: twitter / @lagipoiva

"To have them at 25-25 was a shock for everyone. We did not see this coming because ... FAST Party wasn't even a year old. And HRPP has been in power since 1982.

"It really spoke to a need for change."

The Constitution Amendment Bill, the Land and Titles Bill and the Judicature Bill pushed by the HRPP government had been decried by the legal community as rushed, poorly drafted and ill-considered.

"I can confidently say that that was the trigger for Laauli Leuatea Polataivao who is the founder of FAST and Fiame Naomi Mata'afa to leave the HRPP," Jackson said.

"If those three bills were not introduced we would still be in HRPP government. There would have been some dissent within HRPP but it would have been suppressed and they would have been happy just continuing with the status quo."

Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.

 Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi Photo: Samoa Govt

Jackson said from Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi's perspective the bills helped the Samoan people and "empowers the chiefly system to make decisions on the land".

"But then you also look at the issue of China's interests in Samoa and how some of the decisions made by Tuilaepa and his government are driven primarily from the perspective of development. 

"He saw this as empowering the Samoan people but the truth is it is disempowering because it takes away people's right to a fair trial and to seek recourses under the judiciary."

Tuilaepa has been prime minister of Samoa since 1998 as leader of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP).

Fiame 'culturally endorsed'

On Sunday, 24 May, Fiame was sworn in as the country's first female prime minister under the marquee tent on the Parliament grounds in a ceremony Tuilaepa called "treason".

None of the judiciary, the speaker, the head of state nor the elected HRPP members were present.

"But in the audience, there were three of the paramount families; the only one that was absent was the head of state [Afioga] Tuimalealiifano [Vaaletoa Sualauvi II]. 

"More importantly, the Salelesi - who is the traditional guard of the head of state and of the speaker of the house - was there. He does a chant before the sitting of parliament and he did this chant after Fiame was sworn in ... culturally, that's an endorsement and recognition that she is indeed sworn in as the leader of the country.

"Culturally, she's been endorsed."

Jackson said Tuilaepa was "noticeably upset" on that day and accused Fiame of wanting to take leadership without due process.

"It felt like he was shaken a bit by what was happening because this was going ahead without his endorsement and when you rule a country for over 20 years, that would have come as a shock to him."

Former Samoan head of state Tui Atua (front L) and his wife Masiofo Filifilia Tamasese (front R) attend the swearing in of Samoa's first woman prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa (not pictured), in Apia on May 24, 2021, at an extraordinary makeshift tent ceremony

 Former Samoan head of state Tui Atua (front L) and his wife Masiofo Filifilia Tamasese (front R) attend the swearing in of Fiame Naomi Mata'afa (not pictured), in Apia on 24 May 2021. Photo: AFP

The 25 opposition member have not yet been sworn in. 

Fiame has warned the HRPP MPs they must take steps to have themselves sworn in or risk being forced into by-elections.

"It is heartbreaking, heartwrenching, that a person who was duly elected by the people is not being given the opportunity to rise to power," Jackson said.