Samoan constitutional crisis (Part 1)

Samoa’s first female prime minister was elected this year despite the most dramatic and twist-filled constitutional crisis in the country’s history. [1 of 2]

Samoa (at the time, Western Samoa) gained independence from New Zealand in 1964. Since then, they have had just seven prime ministers. The sixth, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, led the country for more than twenty two years. When he lost the 2021 election, he refused to leave office. This triggered a constitutional crisis with an impressive number of twists, turns, betrayals, triumphs, challenges, surprises, and lawsuits.

The players

First, the major players in this drama:

1. Malielegaoi is the leader of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which had been in power for nearly forty years.

2. Naomi Mata’afa was the deputy leader of the HRPP right up until last year, when she resigned over a controversial law change. More about that in a moment.

Samoa coat of arms
Simitukidia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3. The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal of Samoa, under the Samoan constitution, have the responsibility for upholding the constitution. They were also the ultimate point of appeal for legal decisions in Samoa. “Were”? More about that in a moment.

Sualauvi II
US Embassy from New Zealand, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II is the Samoan head of state. His official designation is O le Ao o le Malo, which is an elected, usually ceremonial title. “Usually”? More about that in a moment.

5. Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio (sorry, no free pictures of this guy) was a candidate in the 2021 election. He ran as an independent, but did not end up as an independent. More about that in a moment.

Okay, everything clear? Our major players are the long-standing PM, the deputy PM, the Supreme Court, the head of state, and the maverick independent. Get ready, because they’re about to clash in a big way.

The split

It all began with the Land and Titles Court of Samoa. This court deals with disputes about land titles and ownership in the country. It runs according to Samoan customary law, but up until last year its decisions could be appealed to the Supreme Court – which runs under English-style common law. In 2020, the government proposed an amendment that stopped that line of appeal: decisions in the Land and Titles Court could not be appealed to the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal.

This was a controversial proposal! The Land and Titles Court had a bit of a bad reputation: some of its decisions had been overturned by the Supreme Court as invalid and unfair. Also its president was convicted of smashing a bottle into a security guard’s head… and yet refused to step down.

Members of the HRPP government began to resign in protest. One of them was the deputy prime minister herself. Mata’afa left HRPP and promised to join an opposition party – Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) – as soon as parliament was dissolved. She had to move fast, because the 2021 election was looming.

The election

The Samoan parliament has 51 seats. The election of April 9, 2021, left a hung parliament. HRPP won 25 seats. FAST won 25 seats. And Ponifasio – the independent – won the tiebreaker seat. This is where the shenanigans begin.

There’s a provision in the Samoan constitution that women should comprise at least ten percent of parliament. As a result of the election, there were five women MPs. 9.8% of the total. So the electoral commission appointed a new MP to make up the numbers. An HRPP candidate. This made the count 26-25 to HRPP.

Ponifasio reacted by joining FAST, pulling the count back to a deadlock. The head of state Sualauvi responded to the deadlock by ordering a new election.

The court

This is where the Supreme Court got involved. They overruled both the appointment of the sixth female MP and the new election, putting FAST ahead 26-25. The court ordered the new parliament to convene within the constitutionally mandated timeline (45 days after the election). The head of state set the date: May 24, 2021. Everything was looking good for FAST and its leader, Naomi Mata’afa. They had the majority, they had the timeline for the new parliament.

Two days before the new parliament was due to meet, Sualauvi reversed his decision. He suspended parliament with the following announcement:

I Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II, Head of State pursuant to my authority as the Head of State of Samoa, including Article 52 of the Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa, I hereby suspend my proclamation for the official opening of the XVIIth Parliament dated 20 May, 2021 until such time as to be announced and for reasons that I will make known in due course.

Head of State suspends Parliament

The reasons never came; chaos was about to be unleashed.

[Part 2 tomorrow.]

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