Samoan constitutional crisis (Part 2)

The 2021 Samoan constitutional crisis came to a head with a face-off between the old prime minister who wouldn’t leave, the new prime minister who couldn’t start, the head of state, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the Speaker of the House. [2 of 2]

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

At the end of Part 1 yesterday the tangled history of the 2021 Samoan election had just hit unprecedented new territory. Mata’afa’s FAST party had 26 seats to HRPP’s 25, making her the prime minister elect. But the usually ceremonial head of state had suspended his proclamation to convene the new parliament. Why? “For reasons that I will make known in due course.”

Sualauvi never did make those reasons known. He fled the capital city for his home village and stayed there. Mata’afa denounced the suspension as a coup attempt. The Supreme Court got involved again, ruling that the suspension was illegal. Parliament had to convene at the scheduled date, 24 May 2021, and at that time Mata’afa would become the prime minster.

Malielegaoi, the old prime minister, refused to accept the court’s ruling without that constitutionally mandated extra seat. The Speaker of the House -a member of Malielegaoi’s party – refused to convene the new parliament without direction from the head of state. Mata’afa’s party insisted that they were going to turn up on the 24th regardless. The stage was set for a show-down.

When FAST showed up at parliament on the morning of May 24th, they found the doors locked and the building surrounded by police. Undeterred, Mata’afa and the other MPs sat on the front lawn and said they would wait for the head of state to arrive. When he didn’t, they decided to hold their own swearing-in ceremony and thus claim the leadership. Mata’afa became the country’s first female prime minister under a tent in front of a locked parliament building. Or did she?

The old prime minister, of course, refused to accept the swearing-in ceremony and accused FAST of treason. Lawsuits flew back and forth, and the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal convened again to sort out the mess. This time, neither side particularly liked their rulings.

The FAST swearing-in ceremony was declared illegal and therefore void. But all the delays in convening a new parliament was also unlawful. The compromise was a beautiful ruling: the lawn ceremony was illegal, but if parliament was not called properly then that lawn ceremony would become retroactively legal and binding.

The head of state did not convene parliament. So, on July 23, the Court of Appeal retroactively made the lawn ceremony official. Mata’afa was the new prime minister at last. And, legally, she had been the prime minister for two months already. The old leader refused to accept her, of course, but a day later the head of state finally acknowledged the result and so Malielegaoi had to leave.

The new Samoan parliament was supposed to finally convene last week. This was delayed because the (now opposition) HRPP MPs refused to acknowledge the new Speaker of the House, who in turn locked them out of parliament and refused to swear them in. The Supreme Court ruled that he had to allow the opposition to join, and the full parliament finally got together just last Friday. The crisis, it seems, is over. For now.

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