Friday , September 17 2021
Ending Bitter 3-Month Standoff, Samoa’s Leader Concedes Election Defeat

Ending Bitter 3-Month Standoff, Samoa’s Leader Concedes Election Defeat

A three-month constitutional crisis that had convulsed the Pacific Island nation of Samoa ended on Monday as its long-serving leader finally conceded an election defeat, making way for the first female prime minister in the country’s 56-year history.

The incoming leader, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, is scheduled to take office on Tuesday. The critical breakthrough in Samoa’s political stalemate came four days earlier, when the Court of Appeals ruled that a makeshift swearing-in ceremony that Ms. Mata’afa’s party had held in May after being locked out of Parliament was constitutional.

“FAST here is the government,” the departing prime minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Tuilaepa, said of Ms. Mata’afa’s party as he vowed to supporters on Monday that he would lead a worthy opposition. “We will be present in every Parliament sitting, so we can uphold the duties we were called to do by our constituencies.”

Mr. Tuilaepa, 76, who has been the country’s leader for 22 years, had fought bitterly to hold on to his office since the April 9 election ended in a dead heat. After a final undecided lawmaker threw his support behind Ms. Mata’afa, giving her party a slim parliamentary majority, Mr. Tuilaepa refused to accept his loss, claiming that he had been “appointed by God” to lead the country.

In the months of political back and forth that followed the election, both parties declared that a coup had taken place, dividing families and resulting in dozens of court challenges.

At one point, the country’s election commission intervened, blocking the ascension of Ms. Mata’afa, paradoxically, by invoking a law meant to ensure greater female representation in Parliament.

Under that law, women must hold at least 10 percent of the seats. The election had produced a count of 9.8 percent, and the commission refused to round up. So it appointed a female member of Mr. Tuilaepa’s party to Parliament, temporarily handing him a majority.

The judiciary went on to deliver a series of victories to Ms. Mata’afa, reversing the election commission’s move and declaring her the winner. But the country’s head of state — who holds an ordinarily ceremonial position — absconded to a remote village rather than preside over her swearing-in ceremony. Ms. Mata’afa’s party held its own ceremony under a tent near Parliament.

Mr. Tuilaepa emerged later that day, saying he would not recognize Ms. Mata’afa’s appointment and calling her swearing-in an act of “treason.”

Samoa, a normally peaceful nation with no military of its own, has seldom known political volatility, albeit at the cost of being a virtual one-party state. Ms. Mata’afa, 64, formerly Mr. Tuilaepa’s deputy, was a well-established political figure in her own right before forming her own party last year.

“We’ve never seen this kind of rift before in our country,” said Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, a scholar and journalist based in Samoa. “I’ve never experienced this before in my whole life. Lines have been crossed. It’s very much akin to what happened in the U.S. with Trump.”

Still, even after the months of political intrigue, analysts heralded the court’s ruling on Friday as a victory for the rule of law.

“This situation has tested Samoa’s Constitution, its political system and especially the judiciary,” said Kerryn Baker, an expert on the region at the Australian National University. “I think Samoans will take heart in the fact that their systems are strong and they can withstand that these kinds of challenges.”

Ms. Mata’afa, clad in cardinal red in her first public appearance after the ruling, acknowledged the difficulty of the previous months.

“It is a new day,” she said. “I offer my deepest gratitude to you, the people of Samoa, and in particular acknowledge the dignity with which you have waited with patience and forbearance, peacefully and respectfully, for the court process to be concluded.”

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