Monday (May 24), Samoa’s prime minister-elect was barred from entering the Pacific nation’s parliament after her political opponent declined to admit electoral defeat, sparking reports of a coup.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa appeared at parliament ready to be sworn in as Samoa’s first female prime minister, surrounded by judges dressed in ceremonial robes and horsehair wigs.
Instead, they were barred from entering the legislative chamber while her followers chanted hymns and demanded that the outcome of an April 9 general election be respected.
“We need brave Samoans right now … to uphold our election,” Mata’afa told the crowd gathered in the parliamentary grounds.
After 22 years in office, incumbent Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has refused to relinquish power, even though the courts have confirmed that Mata’afa secured a narrow one-seat majority in last month’s vote.
Mata’afa has accused Malielegaoi of threatening Samoa’s democracy.
“This is an illegal takeover of government, that’s what coups are,” she told New Zealand’s Newshub on Sunday.
“We have to fight this because we want to retain this country as a country that is democratically ruled, premised on the rule of law.”
Parliament was supposed to convene on Monday morning with a ceremony led by Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese.
He led a procession of judges from the Supreme Court to parliament, but when confronted with a locked door they turned around and headed back to the courthouse.
Mata’afa and hundreds of supporters remained in the parliamentary grounds for about an hour, singing and making speeches.
While they were there, the clerk of parliament’s legislative assembly arrived and apologised for locking the chamber, saying he could only allow parliament to sit on the orders of head of state Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi.
Sualauvi on Saturday ordered plans to convene parliament on Monday be scrapped, but the Supreme Court overturned his ruling during a rare Sunday sitting and said it should go ahead.
With the constitutional crisis deepening after a six-week standoff, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she hoped “cool, calm heads” would prevail.
“We support Samoa’s democracy and we would call on others to do the same,” Ardern told TVNZ.
“Obviously, now is a really difficult crossroads, this is a big change for Samoa over what’s been occurring in the past 20 years in their elections.
“Our call would be to maintain and uphold the rule of law.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne expressed similar sentiments.
“Australia values our close friendship with Samoa. It is important that all parties respect the rule of law and democratic processes,” she tweeted.
“We have faith in Samoa’s institutions including the judiciary.”
Samoa gained independence in 1962 after nearly 50 years as a New Zealand protectorate, and the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party has been in power since 1982, apart from a brief coalition period from 1986 to 1987.