Opponents of Samoa’s first elected female prime minister locked the doors of the statehouse to prevent her from taking office Monday in what she characterized as a “bloodless coup.”
The Washington Post reports that Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and her followers were not deterred by the bizarre stunt and instead erected a tent on the statehouse lawn where she took her oath of office.
The Post notes that this is the latest development in what has been a tumultuous six-week constitutional crisis as Mata’afa’s opponent, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, refuses to cede power.
Malielegaoi has been prime minister of the island of roughly 200,000 people since 1998.
The crisis began when the national elections ended on April 9 in a 25-25 tie between Mata’afa and Malielegaoi.
The tie appeared to have been broken when the sole independent lawmaker went with Mata’afa, but the ruling Human Rights Protection (HRP) Party, which Malielegaoi leads, appointed another HRP lawmaker who restored the tie.
To resolve the issue, the Post reports that Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II, the head of state of Samoa and a Malielegaoi ally, announced a new election. However, Mata’afa’s FAST Party successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the last-minute appointment, resulting in her victory.
Despite the ruling, normal procedures that would take place with a new prime minister were canceled without explanation, such as the opening of Parliament.
“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,” Mata’afa told New Zealand news outlet Newshub.
Malielegaoi called Mata’afa’s swearing-in ceremony “a joke,” the Post reports.
“Oh my, where have we ever seen a Speaker sworn in, in a tent? Shameful,” he reportedly said to New Zealand media.
Mata’afa’s rise to power would have international implications as she has pledged to stop a planned $100 million Chinese wharf from being built in Samoa.
The wharf was part of the reason why she left the HRP. Although she has expressed a desire to maintain relationships with Beijing, the Post reports that she took issue with adding to Samoa’s $150 million debt to China.
The Post reports that international observers appear to be reluctant to take sides in the crisis that has resulted in two governments laying claim to the country.
“We have faith in Samoa’s democracy and in their institutions,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, according to the Post.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne called on “all parties [to] respect the rule of law and democratic processes.”