Samoa’s constitutional crisis has entered yet another phase, just over a month after the nation’s first woman prime minister-elect, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, was locked out of parliament and sworn into office in a tent.
Samoa’s Supreme Court has today found the May 24 swearing in was unconstitutional — on the face of it a win for caretaker prime minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi.
However, the court also ordered that parliament convene within seven days from June 28. This is a win for Fiame’s Fa'atuatua I Le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (FAST) Party, which has been pushing for this outcome for some time.
The much anticipated decision came with a clear warning for Tuilaepa and those who have acted on his behalf to disrupt democracy’s course. If they act to prevent parliament convening by July 5, the oaths of office taken on May 24 will be reinstated “so that the business of the nation can proceed”.
This is just the latest of many rounds in the legal fight that erupted after Samoa’s April 9 general election.
Fiame secured a one seat majority with the help of independent candidate, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, who will formally join the FAST Party once parliament is convened. He was named Fiame’s deputy on May 24.
But when Tuilaepa (Samoa’s political leader since 1998) refused to concede, the Pacific’s oldest democracy was plunged into dangerous waters.
In the following weeks, an erratic Tuilaepa, with the critical assistance of key officials, pushed Samoa to the brink of autocracy. In stark contrast, an unflappable Fiame has repeatedly asked Samoa’s people for patience as the courts worked through the deluge of cases caused by the election stalemate.
The Supreme Court’s caseload since April 9 has included 28 petitions disputing electoral results. These are gradually being heard, and on June 18 the court awarded an additional seat to Fiame’s FAST Party (the HRPP candidate’s election was voided when he was found guilty of breaching election rules).
A great deal of the court’s time, however, has been spent working through the repercussions of an extraordinary chain of events that began on April 20.
In order to cancel FAST’s one seat majority, Head of State Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi and Samoa’s Electoral Commission announced on social media that a 52nd parliamentary seat had been created.
The move was justified on the grounds that a constitutionally mandated 10% minimum of parliamentary seats reserved for women had not been met.
Five women had won seats, and heading into the election it had been agreed the 10% threshold equated to five seats. Now the Electoral Commissioner was saying six women should have seats, and a candidate from Tuilaepa’s Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) was appointed.
It is one of many ironies in this political saga that Tuilaepa was using the gender quota to prevent Samoa’s first female prime minister from assuming office. With this move, the election results were again deadlocked.
The manoeuvre was one of the tactics designed to run down the clock on the constitutionally designated 45 days for a new government to be sworn in. If the May 24 deadline was broken it would trigger another election.
Then, as the courts considered the merits of the sixth seat for women, the head of state revoked the April 9 election results on the basis of the tied parliament and called for a fresh election to be held on May 21.
But a week before the May 24 deadline, the Supreme Court found the head of state did not have the powers to void the April 9 election results and the appointment of the HRPP member to the 52nd seat was illegal.
Those decisions gave Fiame back her one seat majority and plans were on track for parliament to be sworn in by Monday May 24. (The court did subsequently decide that a sixth seat for women was required, but that parliament must sit before the seat is filled by election.)
In another twist, on the evening of Saturday May 22 the head of state suspended parliament until further notice and left Apia for his home village some distance away.
Although the Supreme Court ordered on May 23 that parliament sit the next day, the parliament building was locked by order of Tuilaepa. The FAST Party resorted to the unofficial swearing in ceremony in a tent erected on the parliament lawns, presided over by FAST lawyers in what they argued was the “principle of necessity”.
As it stands now, FAST holds a two seat majority in Samoa’s Legislative Assembly, which will increase by one when Tuala formalises his move.
If the Supreme Court’s latest ruling is complied with, all 51 members will be sworn into office and Fiame will be Samoa’s next prime minister within seven days. The question is, will Tuilaepa abandon the power play that has tested Samoa’s democracy like never before in its 59 years since independence in 1962?
Australia has called for the convening of parliament in its first robust statement on the crisis. Other democracies are now likely to quickly follow suit.
So far, Samoa’s own democracy has been tempered and strengthened in the fires of this crisis. But it remains to be seen whether a political leader who embodies tomorrow’s woman has finally made Tuilaepa yesterday’s man.
Authors: Patricia A. O'Brien, Visiting Fellow, School of History, Australian National University, and Adjunct Professor, Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University