Samoa’s months-long political crisis has been brought to a close and the Pacific nation has its first female prime minister after a ruling of the country’s court of appeal this afternoon.
The Samoan court of appeal ruled that the Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party was the official winner of the national election in April and the ad hoc swearing-in ceremony held by the party out the front of parliament, when FAST MPs were denied entry to the building, was legitimate.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the leader of FAST, was confirmed by the court to be the country’s first female prime minister. She was previously the country’s deputy prime minister and last year defected from the Human Rights Protection party (HRPP), which had ruled Samoa for 39 years, to join the FAST party, which was founded in June 2020.
The court’s decision sees the official end of the reign of Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who served as the country’s prime minister for more than 22 years and at the time of the election was the world’s second-longest serving prime minister.
In its ruling, the court said that the FAST party was “entitled to take power on the 24th May”, when the party held their ad-hoc swearing-in ceremony and said that “from this point, the court does not recognise [Tuilaepa’s caretaker government] as the government of the Independent State of Samoa, because of the fact that there is a new government”.
Outside the court house in Mulinu’u, FAST party members and supporters sang hymns of gratitude and a prayer expressing their delight at the outcome.
“The road we have walked has been filled with obstacles. We feel humbled, and are grateful to God that our mission has been accomplished, we have made it. Despite the obstacles in our pathway, this is our moment, let us move forward from here,” said Laaulialemalietoa Polataivao Schmidt, the founder of FAST and an MP for the party.
A source in the police service who did not want to be named told the Guardian that he was awaiting orders from his superiors to act.
“All we need is a court order to act on the decision or direction from Fiame about the way forward.” Asked if his superiors would respond to orders from former prime minister Tuilaepa, who has previously refused to admit defeat, he said: “No, we respect the courts, and that is what we were told by our commissioner before he left for New Zealand.”
The Samoan police commissioner left for New Zealand two weeks ago for a medical emergency and told his officers to take orders from the court once they handed down a ruling.
The news of the new prime minister has been received with elation by many on the ground.
“There’s definitely a feeling of relief and joy around us now,” said Maina Vai, editor of Nofoilo Samoa Media.
Samoa endured months of political turmoil after FAST presented an unexpectedly strong challenge to HRPP during the May election, which resulted the two parties winning 25 votes apiece, and one remaining seat going to an independent.
The independent threw his support behind FAST, giving them a majority, but the result was thrown up into the air when HRPP appointed an additional MP for their party, saying this was due to the country’s 10% quota for female MPs not having been met. The move was denounced by FAST and legal experts as a “bloodless coup”.
The country’s supreme court declared the use of the gender quota provision to be improper and ordered the parliament to convene and allow the new parliament to be sworn in, which would have ended the country’s electoral drama.
Instead, in dramatic scenes at the end of May, the caretaker government refused to convene parliament to allow a transition of power, locking the prime minister-elect and her supporters out of the parliament building.
FAST MPs then held an ad hoc swearing-in ceremony outside parliament, declaring Fiame to be the new prime minister, a move that Tuilaepa denounced as “treason and the highest form of illegal conduct”.
Tuilaepa is yet to comment on the court’s ruling but has previously questioned the decisions of the court and has refused to concede defeat.