Democracy in crisis in Samoa

Fuimaono Tuiasau
Pacific Adviser, TINZ

April Election

Former Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegao courtesy Wikimedia

This year’s Samoa general elections in April follows the meteoric rise of a new opposition party, the Faatuatua I Le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (FAST Party) against the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) which has ruled for the last 40 years. Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi was the second longest-serving prime minister in the world, and in the role since 1998. 

The election result saw the FAST Party taking 25 of the 51 seats of the house, with an independent candidate siding with the FAST party, they gained a slim majority. 

Uncertainty and turmoil

This began a most tumultuous post-election period in Samoa. 

The Electoral Commission appointed an extra woman - an HRPP candidate - to parliament. They justified it as constitutional because the constitution requires a minimum percentage of women in Parliament. The Electoral Commission was widely criticised with the FAST Party promptly filing court cases to challenge its decision. 

Then the Head of State Tuimalealiifano Va'aletoa Sualauvi II announced that new elections would be held on the 21 May to break the deadlock. This was met by the FAST Party lodging another court case, against the Head of State, arguing that the court case against the Electoral Commission would resolve the issue of a majority and the Head of State had no legal mandate to make his announcement. 

There has been growing concern by all Samoans in Samoa and abroad that the continuing uncertainty is weakening respect for parliament and politics.

The Samoa Supreme Court heard from lawyers for HRPP and FAST and handed down important rulings effectively breaking the deadlock and ruled on the powers of the Head of State to intervene by convening the elected Parliament. It ruled that the Electoral Commission had overreached its legal authority and could not make the appointment it had made, and that the Head of State had no constitutional authority to call for new elections. In turn the FAST Party called for unity and forgiveness.

Prime Minister elect Fiame Mata’afa courtesy Wikipedia

The majority in parliament is for now with the FAST Party and likely to appoint its co-leader the Hon Fiame Mata’afa to be Samoa’s first female Prime Minister. 

Born in 1957, when Samoa was on the verge of gaining independence from New Zealand, Mata'afa had political credentials on both sides of the family tree. Her grandfather was involved in the Mau, a non-violent movement fighting for Samoan independence. She was still a child when her father became the first Prime Minister and Mata'afa's mother Fetaui was a women's rights activist whom Mata'afa says dragged her along to political meetings and to later became a Member of Parliament.

The Head of State Saulauvi declared on Friday 21 May that Parliament would open on Monday 24 May, but then a day later on Facebook declared he would not be bound by the rulings of the Supreme Court and declared that Parliament would not sit until further notice for reasons he would give later. These have still not surfaced.

Then, in the rarest of sittings of the Supreme Court on Sunday 23 May, it ruled that Saulauvi’s stated postponement of parliament was unlawful and the Parliament was to sit on Monday 24 May. 

This was followed that evening with the Speaker of the House announcing he would not convene Parliament because he would follow the Head of State and not the Supreme Court.  Ironically, in the past the state of the judiciary was a matter of concern for Tuila’epa who wanted to reduce the number foreign judges who were routinely sitting on Samoa's Courts. He brought about constitutional changes last year which allowed for only one foreign judge on the Court of Appeal. Now Tuila’epa is questioning the independence of Samoan judges on the Supreme Court and wants foreign judges back.  

When the FAST Party and supporters came to Parliament for the first day of sitting, the doors of Parliament were locked on 24 May. The FAST Party convened a parliament to meet the Constitutional requirement that parliament is to open 45 days after the general election. It selected Mata’afa as Prime Minister and appointed a cabinet.

This may appear a strong symbolic move but as the Chief Justice, Speaker and Clerk of the House and other MPs were not present and it may have to be formally repeated in the House of Parliament when it reconvenes. Tuila’epa said it was treasonous and he is claiming he is still the caretaker Prime Minister. The deadlock has continued.

On 31 May, the day before the annual celebration of Samoan Independence Archbishop of Samoa Alapati Lui Mataeliga challenged Tuila’epa to stand down for the sake of national harmony and unity. Mataeliga endorsed the constitutional role of the courts particularly in times of uncertainty and civil strife. The Judiciary and the Priesthood have spoken clearly to the Samoan people, this will affect Tuila’epa’s standing with most Samoans.

The rule of law in Samoa

However, of great significance for all Samoans is the Rule of Law in the Pacific’s longest independent and democratic country.  The court cases involved the best legal minds in Samoa, using the Constitution as its ultimate guide. The Supreme Court has provided clarity on the law where it was asked to rule.  

In a very rare move, the Editorial Board of the Samoa Observer noted that ‘more significant than any of their political consequences is the requirement that ..decisions and due process is respected’. The perceived pressures on the court was acknowledged and ‘as resolute in the face of political pressure and attacks on its legitimacy, has been our judiciary’ and the courts were ‘unmoved by several slurs upon its independence.’ The Board stated that by ‘upholding the rule of law they have emerged as the jewel of Samoa’s system of government.’  

Lessons thus far

Constitutional democracy in Samoa has always been based on cooperation - from modern Samoa and traditional leadership of matai and tulafale - and support for legal frameworks established under the Constitution. From the time of the elections, the ultimate systems of checks and balances appear to have run their course. Most Samoans see these resolutions as the safest way to steer the country away from chaos and turmoil. 

All parties participated in court cases and made strong arguments, which were ruled on by the highest court of Samoa. The self-defining roles of Tuile’apa’s caretaker government and the Head of State seem to ignore their stated roles defined in the Constitution of Samoa. This is destabilizing.   

The importance of traditional power in aiga and matai, has played a significant calming effect on the uncertainties. The often-quoted phrases from the eminent FAST Party orators and chiefs, and recently the Head of the Catholic Church, are all bound up in ‘achieving reconciliation and respect for the Constitution of Samoa.

Parliament and the bodies established under the Constitution must be supported, guided by the clear directions from the courts. 

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