Samoa was sliding into dictatorship, the archbishop warned, as the Pacific nation’s constitutional crisis went into its third month. Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, 76, the prime minister for 23 years who has refused to cede power since April’s elections and declared that he was ‘appointed by God’, was sitting in the front pew as the Catholic prelate, Alapati Lui Mataeliga, said in his sermon that Tuilaepa’s attempt to cling to power was undoing the work of their Samoan forebears who fought for independence. Addressing him directly, the archbishop told Tuilaepa: ‘Your time is done.’
It was only one extraordinary scene in weeks of brinkmanship and defiance by the veteran politician since the prime minister-elect, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, was sworn in outside parliament after she was locked out of the building in the capital, Apia, on 24 May by allies of Tuilaepa. Fiame, who is Samoa’s first female prime minister, had arrived at parliament, or Fono, with the chief justice and the other MPs of her party, Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (Samoa United in Faith, or FAST), only to find the doors barred. She then took the oath of office in a marquee outside in a makeshift ceremony that was declared invalid by her rivals.
Tuilaepa accused his former deputy PM of ‘treason and the highest form of illegal conduct’. He told a press conference after the swearing-in ceremony: ‘We’ve almost had 60 years of sovereignty. Now it looks like we are ruled by the mafia.’ Fiame in turn declared: ‘The law-breaking caretaker [PM] and his weak and complicit officials have abused the privilege of governing to assault the constitution.’
Fiame was scathing about her former ally, telling Radio New Zealand: ‘He just likes to stoke the fire and throw in big words like treason. I don’t think that [his accusation] is very serious.’ She suggested that after predicting a landslide victory, the result had been a ‘dire shock’ and he could not face up to the end of his long career after thinking he was ‘omnipotent’. She added: ‘He’s gone from being “chosen by God” to setting himself up as very god-like.’
The political crisis followed a tied election on 9 April, when Tuilaepa’s Vaega Faaupufai e Puipuia Aia Tatau a Tagata (Human Rights Protection Party, or HRPP), which has dominated Samoan politics for four decades, and FAST, its new rival led by Fiame, both won 25 seats in parliament. The election result – the closest for three decades – was a crushing blow for Tuilaepa, the world’s second-longest ruling prime minister. His party held 47 of the 51 seats before the election – and he predicted HRPP would win 42.
Samoa has long been in effect ‘a barely democratic one-party state’. The US State Department said in 2011 that: ‘Restrictive rules limiting the formation of viable opposition political parties has allowed the ruling political party to dominate government since 1982.’ In 2006 Tuilaepa pushed through a law withdrawing recognition from parties with fewer than eight members, and banned MPs switching parties. In 2009, the opposition Tautua Samoa Party had its seats declared vacant, though a court ruled the move unlawful. The tide really began to turn in 2018 as anger grew at Tuilaepa’s threat to ban Facebook amid online criticism of him and his ministers, when he warned ‘gutless anonymous bloggers’ not to ‘play with fire’.
This disenchantment mounted after a measles epidemic swept through the small country in 2019, killing 83 people, mostly children, and infecting thousands. While the outbreak also affected other Pacific nations, 99% of the population of Tonga had been vaccinated against the disease while only 31% of Samoans had been immunised. Tuilaepa’s government was accused of ignoring medical advice to expedite a mass vaccination programme seven months before the measles epidemic took hold.
Tuilaepa’s downfall accelerated when he attempted to codify Samoan customs with three linked draft laws last year: the constitution amendment, judicature, and lands and titles bills. He argued that European colonialists had imposed their legal culture on Samoans and undermined customary communal rights, though as Malama Meleisea and Penelope Schoeffel at the National University of Samoa noted: ‘Very few appeals to higher courts over communal versus constitutionally protected rights have been made over the past half-century.’
The legal profession, represented by the Samoa Law Society, opposed the move as allowing chiefs to behave autocratically, especially as 80% of land in Samoa is governed by customary law, and for in effect creating a parallel judiciary by making the lands and titles court equal to the supreme court. One lawyer, Fiona Ey, called this ‘unprecedented in a modern democracy’ and warned: ‘The changes would potentially empower the executive to dismiss judges without grounds or due process.’ Meleisea and Schoeffel suggested that the motivation for this contentious legislation, coming ahead of a general election, was that it would ‘make political interventions into [chiefly] title succession and authority over land’ much easier.
Fiame resigned as deputy PM over the bills and within a few months became leader of FAST, which was formed in July 2020 by the ex-speaker and minister La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao, who had been thrown out of HRPP for opposing the legislation. In a country in which the chiefs continue to wield huge influence, Fiame not only brought political experience and acumen to the new party but represented an important lineage: her father, Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, was a paramount chief and Samoa’s first prime minister; her mother, Laulu Fetauimalemau Mata’afa, was also a politician as well as a diplomat; a grandfather, Le Mamea Matatumua Ata, helped draft Samoa’s constitution.
By 21 April, with both parties in deadlock and Tuilaepa clinging to power, the sole independent MP, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, called for Tuilaepa to stand down and gave his support to FAST, thereby giving it a one-seat majority. The night before he backed FAST, however, the Electoral Commission declared that as there were not enough women in parliament to meet a 2016 constitutional requirement for 10% female representation (the five female MPs amounted to 9.8%), another seat would be created. Ironically, this clause to boost the number of women in parliament prevented the first female prime minister taking office. The female appointee, Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuu’au, former head of parliament’s public accounts committee, happened to represent HRPP. FAST called the move ‘illegal’.
Then, a night before the supreme court was due to hear FAST’s legal challenge, the head of state, or O le Ao o le Malo, Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II, called for fresh elections to break the deadlock, a move backed by Tuilaepa. Fiame condemned this, saying: ‘I do not consider that the head of state has the constitutional power to call new elections at this time.’ The supreme court then ruled that creating the extra seat was illegal, as was calling new elections, and said it was lawful for parliament to convene on 24 May. Meanwhile, Tuilaepa was warned that he could face a prison sentence for contempt after defying the supreme court’s order to convene parliament, while he in turn said the court was overreaching its constitutional role by seeking to limit his own and compared it to Hitler, the Samoa Observer reported.
On 18 June the HRPP lost a seat after a court found an MP guilty of offering bribes to voters. It also found the petitioner, a former HRPP MP who ran as an independent, guilty of the same charges. A challenge in another constituency, in which the FAST and HRPP candidates accused each other of bribery and treating, was rejected by the supreme court on 21 June. A third case disputing a result set up another by-election after the HRPP and FAST petitioners withdrew mutual accusations of bribery and the winning candidate resigned. Of 28 petitions challenging election results, six had been settled by 29 June, leaving FAST with 26 seats and HRPP with 23. A court ruling on 3 July said FAST’s ad hoc swearing-in ceremony in May was unconstitutional and ordered parliament to convene by 5 July. However, the power struggle continued as the head of state declared that the supreme court had no authority over him. By mid-July, the HRPP’s position had weakened considerably, losing six seats after further petitions to leave it on 19, with eight by-elections in the offing.
As the impasse dragged on, with Samoans increasingly exasperated, the United Nations’ secretary-general, António Guterres, offered support and urged Samoa’s leaders to ‘find solutions … through dialogue’. The Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, called on Samoan parties to respect the rule of law, saying: ‘I urge all to accept the decisions of the courts in their entirety.’ New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, ruled out ‘any interventionist role’ and encouraged ‘all parties and political leaders’ to uphold ‘the outcome that the election delivered’. Henry Puna, secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, called for a ‘peaceful transfer of power’. One wider ramification of the standoff is that Fiame has signalled a pivot away from China in Samoa’s foreign policy, after promising to scrap a $100m Chinese-backed port project. ‘Samoa is a small country. Our seaports and our airports cater for our needs,’ she told Reuters. ‘The level of indebtedness of our government to the government of China was a pressing issue for voters.’
As the saga neared its fourth month, however, Tuilaepa was continuing to defy the prime minister-elect, the courts and international opinion, accusing the chief justice, Satiu Simativa Perese, of incompetence and claiming that FAST leaders were meeting judges. Fiame denied the accusation, saying: ‘Contrary to HRPP’s lies and mistruths, neither I nor La’auli nor any member of FAST has met with the chief justice or any other supreme court judge, in secret or in private.’ She added: ‘We have seen the unconscionable and dirty tactics played out by a man who refuses to accept defeat and now, in the last desperate attempt to retain power, we have their attack on the rule of law.’
The constitutional crisis comes amid an increase in the vulnerability of the Samoan body politic, according to the Fragile States Index, which suggests a decline across nearly every metric, such as inequality, state legitimacy, human rights and factionalised elites. While Samoa’s lack of an army might be considered a blessing in the current turmoil, Fiona Ey issued a stark warning of what is at stake in a country known as one of the most stable in the region. ‘What the government is doing is effectively a bloodless coup,’ she said. ‘While other Pacific nations have used military force to take or retain government, Samoa’s seemingly democratic system has been white-anted [undermined] to similar effect; its apparent stability obscuring the gradual deconstruction of democracy over the last few decades.’