Samoa election crisis: What you need to know

2:12 pm on 27 May 2021

Explainer - Samoa has been struggling with a confrontational constitutional crisis.

Two people have both claimed to be the Prime Minister, accusing one another of (bloodless) coups, with the incumbent saying of his elected rival - who would be the first female Prime Minister - that her swearing in was "treason".

So who is in power now and what are they like? How did they get to this point? Do the claims these events amounted to a coup, or treason, really wash?

RNZ is here to clear it all up...

FOR USE ON What You Need To Know articles ONLY please

Photo: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

The main players

Much of the political upheaval boils down to a clash between two political heavyweights, both of whom claim to be the Prime Minister of Samoa.

Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi

Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi in Wellington.

Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi in Wellington in 2017. Photo: RNZ/ Moera Tuilaepa-Taylor

Tuila'epa (which is his matai title) has been Prime Minister of Samoa since 1998 as leader of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP).

The HRPP has been in power since 1982, and Tuila'epa - at the time the deputy Prime Minister - took over as Prime Minister after his predecessor Tofilau Eti Alesana retired due to ill health.

First elected to represent Lepa district in a 1981 by-election, Tuila'epa is Samoa's longest-serving Prime Minister with 23 years on the clock, and the second-longest serving Prime Minister in the world.

He was educated at high schools in Samoa and Auckland, New Zealand, has a Masters in Commerce from University of Auckland, and before entering politics worked for both the EEC (a predecessor for the European Union) and PwC.

While he has in the past criticised Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama's rise to power in a coup and reluctance to return Fiji to democratic elections, his own rule more recently has been criticised as leaning towards tyranny including near-unilateral decision-making, with increasing crackdowns on criticism and political opposition - even within his own party.

He tends towards bombastic rhetoric, and has survived three assassination plots against him (most recently in 2019).

He has so far refused to cede power.

Fiame Naomi Mata'afa

FAST party leader Fiame Naomi Mata'afa.

Photo: AFP/ FAST

Fiame is the Prime Minister-elect and leader of the Faʻatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party.

Daughter of the country's first Prime Minister, Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II, one of the four paramount tama-a-'aiga of Samoa. She has been named its first female Prime Minister (though the legality of that swearing-in ceremony was contested by Tuila'epa).

She served as Tuila'epa's deputy PM until last year, and was selected to lead FAST in March, unopposed, after leaving the government over her opposition to three bills changing the Constitution and empowering the administration of the Lands and Titles court, one of several MPs to do so.

The FAST party itself was fairly new when she joined, having been set up in 2020 by former Speaker and Cabinet Minister La'aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao who wanted to limit Prime Ministers to two terms. FAST later combined with two other opposition parties.

Fiame went to school and university in Wellington, New Zealand, but her studies were interrupted in 1977 when she went back to Samoa to help with court cases around the succession of her father's titles following his death in '75.

In 1985 she was elected as MP for Lotofaga, the same seat held by her father and her mother after his death.

Head of State Tuimaleali'ifano Va'aletoa Sualauvi II

Tuimalealiifano Va'aletoa Sualauvi II

Tuimalealiifano Va'aletoa Sualauvi II Photo: Samoa govt

In Samoa, O le Ao o le Malo is the head of state. Equivalent to the role of the Queen and her Governor-General in New Zealand, or the President in the United States.

When Samoa gained independence from New Zealand in 1962, the role was given to the Malietoa and Tupua Tamasese, two of the four Tama a 'Aiga - the major matai title holders (the others being Mata'afa and Tuimaleali'ifano) - as a position for life.

Since the death of Malietoa Tanumafili II in 2007, O le Ao o le Malo has been elected by Samoa's Parliament for a five-year term, which raised concerns about politicisation, even though the role is meant to be ceremonial.

Tuimaleali'ifano Va'aletoa Sualauvi II was appointed in early July 2017. He had been a police officer in both New Zealand and Samoa, and a lawyer who rose to the position of Samoa's attorney-general.

He is also a lay preacher of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, and graduated from Malua Theological Bible School.


Heading into the country's 2021 election, the ruling HRPP was in hot water over its handling of the measles epidemic which left 83 people dead, as well as the three controversial bills pushed through with a lack of effective consultation - the same bills that Fiame and Tuila'epa clashed over.

Samoa went to the polls on Friday 9 April, and an initial count showed 24 seats for HRPP and 25 for FAST, with Independents Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio and Tamaleta Taimang Jensen holding the balance of power in the 51-seat House.

However, the Electoral Commission discovered a counting error, which handed Tamaleta's seat to an HRPP member, making the two parties even with Tuala in the driver's seat.

The final official count - including special votes - began on 12 April, and although the Electoral Commissioner said the results would be bound to change after the count, the situation was unchanged, with Tuala holding the reins.

Voters outside a polling station in the Samoa 2021 general election

Voters outside a polling station in the Samoa 2021 general election. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Tipi Autagavaia

The Samoa Observer reported Tuala had demanded Tuila'epa step down from the leadership in his negotiations. In the end, after consulting with his constituents, Tuala joined FAST giving the party a Parliamentary majority.

It was a decision that promised to bring an end to nearly 40 years of rule by HRPP, and Fiame urged Tuila'epa to concede.

But that was just the start.

Some key details

To really understand what happened after the election, a few basics facts are needed:

  • Samoa's constitution demands that the first sitting of parliament be within 45 days of the general election. Monday, 24 May 2021, is the final day that would be possible.
  • Samoa recently passed a law amending the constitution, which aims to ensure 10 percent of MPs are women.
  • Samoa does not have a standing military force. It can call on military support from New Zealand but that must be requested.
  • Samoa is deeply a Christian country.

Keep these in mind.

Screwing the scrum

Before Tuala had even made his decision, an extra MP for HRPP was installed by the Head of State and the Electoral Commissioner.

This was based on the constitution, which said 10 percent of Parliament's seats be reserved for women - but it also specified that as five seats. Suffice to say, the law itself was confusingly worded.

After the election saw five women elected - 9.8 percent - it was argued that fell short of the 10 percent so HRPP's Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuuau was brought in.

The decision was a move FAST argued was unconstitutional.

The Head of State then called for a second election to end the deadlock, on the advice of Tuila'epa.

HRPP also tried to slow the process down in the courts, filing 47 election petitions against FAST and demanding they be processed by the courts before a new government was installed.

Supreme judgments

Time was growing short (45 days, remember) so Samoa's Supreme Court had to make several key rulings rather quickly, for courts anyway.

On 17 May it rejected the HRPP's move to install the extra women's seat. Later the same day it dismissed the call for a second election.

The Office of the Electoral Commission and the HRPP sought to further delay things by seeking an appeal to the ruling about the extra women's seat, but the Court of Appeal rejected that.

On Wednesday, 19 May, the Head of State agreed parliament would be convened to swear in the MPs on Monday, after FAST had advised him of their majority.

It seemed all was ready for the new Parliament to be sworn in on Monday, but on Saturday Head of State Tuimaleali'ifano cancelled the sitting of Parliament without explanation.

The Supreme Court met urgently in a rare Sunday session and overruled the Head of State's proclamation.

A marquee event: Fiame sworn in, Tuila'epa swears action

Monday, the 45th day since the election, dawned.

The elected FAST MPs, led by Fiame and backed by supporters and police, arrived at Parliament to be sworn in.

However, Samoa's Speaker of Parliament Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa'afisi, a member of HRPP, had disregarded the Supreme Court's ruling, siding with the Head of State (and his own party). He, along with the clerk of the house, insisted Parliament would not sit, meaning the MPs could not be sworn in.

They had literally locked the doors to Parliament, at Tuila'epa, the caretaker minister for parliament's, direction.

The dramatic turn of events led Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese to walk - escorted by Police Commissioner Fuiavailili Egon Keil - from the courthouse to the Parliament building in an attempt to uphold the court's order and confirm the doors were locked - but the HRPP was not budging.

Tuila'epa said only the Head of State had the power to convene Paliament. FAST said HRPP's actions were tantamount to a coup.

"I think a coup would be accurate," spokesman for FAST Apulu Lance Polu said. "Bloodless, but they are actually coups."

Unable to be sworn in within the halls of Parliament, FAST made its own radical decision - it would hold its own swearing-in ceremony under the marquee tent erected on the Parliament grounds to protect its members and supporters from the hot sun.

Fiame was sworn in that afternoon, as was her Cabinet, but there was a constitutional question hanging over the legality of that swearing in: none of the judiciary, the speaker, the head of state nor the elected HRPP members had been present.

It's happening, and traditionally, God be the glory, ole sauniga lotu e taua ai le afiafi o le taeao fou, Rev Uilelea, ′′ Ole Aso e fanau mai ai, o ona po e toto ai but ona po e lia ' i ai ..."

The ad-hoc swearing in under the marquee tent outside Parliament begins with a prayer, Former Samoan head of state Tui Atua and his wife Masiofo Filifilia Tamasese in attendance. Photo: Ame Tanielu

Indeed, the head of state himself was nowhere to be seen, having gone home some two hours away.


Tuila'epa vowed action against this "treason", and questioned FAST's mental stability. "None of what they did is legitimate. The Devil has won and taken over them," he said. Asked about the 45-day rule, he said he would answer that at a "more appropriate time".

He has used the word treason before in reference to his now-former deputy, something she said was ridiculous and an election ploy.


The next day, FAST was again barred from entering Parliament and vowed to take the fight back to the courts.

The legal situation was complicated by the fact HRPP had not been present at the swearing-in. If the ceremony was deemed legal, the now-opposition MPs would not have been sworn in within the 45-day limit.

The attorney general - an HRPP appointee - perhaps unsurprisingly said the ceremony was unconstitutional, and that FAST is not the government.

Tuila'epa repeated his claims FAST had committed a coup, treason and usurpation, and accused the judiciary of being their running mates. Fiame said he needed to "get a grip".

Calls for a resolution came from all sides, with all Samoan churches calling for peace to prevail, and other Pacific nations refusing to take a side, including New Zealand. The Federated State of Micronesia and Palau have come out in support of Fiame.

Fiame and Tuila'epa continued to trade verbal barbs with both refusing to budge.

Fiame said the swearing-in was based on the rule of law, and Tuila'epa had dragged Samoa to its lowest ebb. He responded by repeating his calls for a new election and calling the judiciary's independence into question.

A Supreme Court challenge to rule on the legality of FAST's swearing-in was set for Thursday, but attorney-general Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale applied to have the judges disqualified, asking that overseas judges be brought in instead.

So where does that leave us?

Tuila'epa and HRPP appear to be banking on an appeal against the Supreme Court's ruling over the women's seats, while also challenging the independence of the judiciary and calling for foreign judges and a new election.

Either way it's likely to be tied up in the courts for some time, and even if the courts confirm FAST's swearing-in questions remain over where that leaves the opposition MPs, perhaps with the prospect of by-elections in their 25 seats.

It's even conceivable the four Tama a 'Aiga could bring their royal authority to bear. All this is a true test of Samoa's constitution, and the balance of power between the three branches of government.

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