Samoa swore in its first female Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, in a tent after the opposition party locked her out of Parliament.
Mata’afa’s Faith in the One True God (FAST) Party claimed victory after a grueling election. The country’s former leader, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, refuses to cede power. He has been prime minister of the island since 1998.
Results initially showed Mata’afa and Melielegaoi to be tied, but the island’s sole independent lawmaker ruled in Mata’afa’s favor. However, Malielegaoi’s Human Rights Protection (HRP) Party appointed another HRP lawmaker who reestablished the tie.
Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II, the head of state of Samoa, announced a new election. He is a known ally of Malielegaoi. The FAST Party petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify Sualauvi’s appointment — and won.
The pushback against Mata’afa is partially down to her pledge to stop a looming China-backed port development. Estimates for the construction range from $100 million to $300 million. Mata’afa was formerly a member of Malielegaoi’s party and broke away from HRP over the harbor. Samoa, which has a population of just 200,000, already owes China $150 million.
Between 2010 and 2018, China advanced $285 million in loans to Samoa and a further $152m in grants, according to data from the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta recently condemned China’s “debt trap diplomacy” in the Pacific.
A day after the ruling, FAST arrived at Parliament Monday. The doors locked.
Undeterred, FAST went ahead with Mata’afa’s swearing-in ceremony Monday in a temporary tent. “I think a coup would be accurate,” FAST spokesman Lance Apulu remarked per RNZ. “Bloodless, but they are actually coups.”
On Monday, the Federated States of Micronesia became one of the first countries to officially recognize Mata’afa’s authority.
“It is imperative that we show our friends — especially during their darkest hours — that we stand with them,” Micronesia’s President David W. Panuelo said in a statement. “Recent weeks have been very troubling for the Samoan People, who have been witnessing what is arguably a Constitutional and Political crisis.”