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Ending 3-month standoff, Samoa’s leader concedes election defeat


By Natasha Frost


A three-month constitutional crisis that had convulsed the Pacific Island nation of Samoa ended 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 today. 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 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 Mata’afa’s party as he vowed to supporters 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.”


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 Mata’afa, giving her party a slim parliamentary majority, 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 Mata’afa, paradoxically, by invoking a law meant to ensure greater female representation in Parliament.


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


The judiciary went on to deliver a series of victories to 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. Mata’afa’s party held its own ceremony under a tent near the beehive-shaped Parliament.


She took the oath of office as the sun descended, flanked by members of her party dressed in cardinal-red blazers and traditional men’s wraparound skirts known as ie faitaga.


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


“Leave it to us to handle this situation,” he had said, promising action against what he called “the highest form of illegal conduct.”


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. Mata’afa, 64, formerly 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 Friday as a victory for the rule of law in the face of efforts by Tuilaepa and his party to force a rerun of the election.


“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.”


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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