Samoan Election Crisis Drags On As Ruling Party Refuses To Cede Power

A transition of power has yet to take place in a historic Samoan election, despite a fairly certain electoral outcome. The anticipated new Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Samoa’s first female Cabinet Minister and daughter of Samoa’s first PM, would now become the first female PM of Samoa and join the small ranks of women leaders in the Pacific. Her win, however, has been blocked by multiple opposition efforts which have drawn out the April election.

On April 9th, Samoa’s Parliament—which gained full independence in 1962—held a general election. The dominating Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has held power for almost forty years and expected another victory. Instead, many Samoan citizens fed up with widespread corruption and governmental failure turned to the alternate FAST coalition; the result was a tie between 25 HRPP votes, 25 FAST votes, and one independent candidate. In the first attempt to rectify the tie, the electoral commissioner decided to appoint an additional HRPP candidate under the auspices of upholding female parliament quotas. The previously independent candidate sided with the FAST party, resulting in another tie of 26-26. In response, HRPP begun a campaign to invalidate the electoral results and remain in power. Its two main advocates are; Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has been Prime Minister for twenty-two years, and the appointed Head of State Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II. Mata’afa previously served as Malielagaoi’s deputy before resigning in September amidst governmental abuses of power and executive overstep, increasing election tensions.

HRPP’s next move was Sualauvi’s call for a second election. The Samoan Supreme Court rejected this appeal as well as the initial appointment of an additional candidate. Without one extra vote, the FAST party gained a 26-25 majority and won the election. To confirm electoral results, Parliament must assemble no more than 45 days after a vote—Monday, May 24th. Knowing this, Sualauvi announced that Parliament would meet Monday, only to promptly reverse the order on Saturday. On Facebook, he ambiguously announced that Parliament would remain suspended “until such time as to be announced and for reasons that I will make known in due course.”

Once again, the Supreme Court intervened and ordered Parliament to meet Monday to comply with the 45-day limit. In a final attempt to block the transition, Samoan police were stationed in front of a locked door when Mata’afa arrived to take her oath. Undeterred, the FAST coalition held an ad hoc swearing-in ceremony. Despite its strong stance, FAST is now facing prosecution for the unsanctioned ceremony, putting the Samoan government at risk. Malielagaoi furthered the accusations, telling Samoan press that FAST was “the Mafia,” “the devil,” and treasonous as “there is only one government in Samoa.” Mata’afa has responded with grace, claiming the “classic dictator behaviour” is part of a political ploy and reiterating her faith in Samoa’s institutions, according to the New Zealand News Hub.

In the midst of the electoral crisis, the international community has been fairly silent. The nearby Federated State of Micronesia (FSM) is the first country to recognize the FAST government. FSM President David Panuelo reiterated that, “As the FSM is itself a democracy…it is imperative that we show our friends—especially during their darkest hours—that we stand with them,” according to Al Jazeera. While New Zealand and Australia have suggested that Samoa uphold democracy and the judiciary, neither country has explicitly commented on the election results. The United Nations has pledged its support if requested while “[urging Samoa’s leaders] to find solutions to the current political situation through dialogue in the best interest of the people and institutions of Samoa,” Al Jazeera reports.

The United Nations’ decision to not directly intervene unless needed reaffirms Samoa’s sovereignty and encourages internal resolution. As oversight mechanisms, it is important that international organizations only get involved as a last resort. Other democratic countries should also call on Samoa to uphold its democratic processes and respect the election results, especially as the outcome will affect the surrounding region and world politics. With many of Malielagaoi’s moves resembling those of global strongmen like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or Bolsonaro, Samoa and the international community must combat these power-grabbing efforts and ensure a peaceful political transition.

Sydney Stewart