Resolving Samoa’s democratic crisis

| June 4, 2021

Samoa is facing a political impasse as caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, leader of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), faces off against his former deputy Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, now leader of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST party).

The 9 April 2021 general election resulted in a stalemate after 25 parliamentarians were elected from each party. The one independent member broke the deadlock by aligning with FAST, but a recently introduced gender quota, requiring 10 per cent of parliamentarians to be female, allowed the Samoan Electoral Commission to appoint a woman from the HRPP. This created a further impasse, with HRPP and FAST having 26 seats each.

To break the deadlock, the Samoan Head of State Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II called for a second general election. The resulting legal challenge saw the Supreme Court declare the use of the gender quota to be improper. This removed the appointed female HRPP member and gave FAST a one-seat parliamentary majority. A second Supreme Court decision made the proposed second election redundant.

As the constitution requires parliament to sit within 45 days of the election, 24 May became an urgent deadline. On 22 May the Sualauvi suspended parliament citing ‘reasons that I will make known in due course’. In response, the Supreme Court held an unprecedented Sunday in-chambers session in which it ordered parliament to convene.

Tuilaepa declared that his HRPP would not attend the opening of parliament and ordered parliamentary clerks to keep the door locked. When the FAST party assembled outside the parliament on Monday, they were unable to enter the building. Mindful of the 45-day deadline, FAST held their own swearing-in ceremony conducted by former attorney general Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu. Yet Tuilaepa and Attorney General Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale labelled the ceremony unconstitutional.

Resolving the impasse will likely involve a combination of constitutionalism and culture. The Supreme Court is due to deliver further findings in coming days and both parties have urged their supporters to remain peaceful.

Given the seriousness of the situation, the international community have watched with interest. Micronesia has formally recognised Fiame as the legitimate prime minister alongside female Fijian politicians and former Marshallese president Dr Hilda Heine. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is said to have called Fiame the evening before her swearing-in — an unsurprising move given his well-documented political rivalry with Tuilaepa.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne urged all parties to ‘respect the rule of law and democratic processes’, noting Australia’s ‘faith in Samoa’s institutions including the judiciary’. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated that New Zealand will not be playing ‘any interventionalist role’ and urged all parties and leaders to uphold the election outcome and the decisions of the judiciary.

The neutrality of these statements reflects the sensitivity of both countries to accusations of interference. Yet their failure to condemn unconstitutional moves may intensify questions about their commitment to democracy and the rule of law following their inaction over unconstitutional developments in Nauru. Fiame has argued that Australia and New Zealand ‘need to be a little bit stronger’.

New PIF Secretary General Henry Puna made an even more neutral statement, encouraging ‘all parties to pursue peaceful means to resolve their difficulties’. He offered support to Samoa without referring to the importance of democratic or judicial institutions. While the Biketawa Declaration, a PIF framework for coordinating a response to regional crises, provides Forum members with a mechanism to intervene in Samoa if requested, Samoa is unlikely to.

External media coverage has overemphasised the role that Samoa’s relationship with China has played in the impasse. Much attention has been paid to Fiame’s pledge to cancel a US$100 million Chinese-backed port development in Vaiusu Bay over concerns it could be turned into a military asset. Yet there has long been local opposition to the port based on concerns about its economic feasibility.

The ongoing constitutional impasse will ultimately be resolved by Samoans. Any geopolitical developments are dwarfed in importance by Samoa’s historical and cultural context, in which old familial and titular power struggles influence political developments. The cultural context is not well understood outside of Samoa, and remains significant for the impasse between Tuilaepa and Fiame, given familial links (including that of the Head of State) to paramount chief titles.

As Samoa does not have a military, and the police force have so far indicated that they will follow the judiciary in upholding law and order, it is unlikely that Samoa’s political impasse will result in physical conflict. There are no signs of civil unrest and supporters on both sides remain peaceful.

This article was written by Henrietta McNeill, a PhD Scholar in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and Joanne Wallis, Professor of International Security in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide.  It was published by the East Asia Forum.