Samoa swore in its first female Prime Minister in a makeshift ceremony in a tent Monday after she was locked out of Parliament amid a power struggle with the country’s longstanding leader.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa’s Faith in the One True God (FAST) Party said the dramatic turn of events amounted to a “bloodless coup” following weeks of uncertainty after the country’s deadlocked April 9 election.
Her narrow election victory was set to end almost 40 years of rule by the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which has governed almost uninterrupted since 1982, and more than two decades with Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi as Prime Minister.
But in a late night decision over the weekend, current head of state Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aleto’a Sualauvi II canceled Monday’s parliamentary sitting without explanation, New Zealand national broadcaster Radio New Zealand reported.
Although Samoa’s Supreme Court ruled Sunday that the order canceling the parliamentary sitting was “unlawful,” FAST arrived at Parliament Monday to find the doors locked, according to RNZ.
“I think a coup would be accurate,” FAST spokesman Lance Apulu told RNZ when asked to describe Monday’s events. “Bloodless, but they are actually coups.”
FAST went ahead with the swearing-in ceremony Monday in a tent, RNZ reported, although it is unclear how legitimate those proceedings will be. Monday is the final possible day a new parliament can be formed under the constitution.
But in a speech after the ceremony, Malielegaoi questioned its legitimacy, calling it a “joke,” RNZ reported.
“Only the head of state, and no one else, can call parliament meetings and swear people in. None of what they did is legitimate,” he said.
CNN has reached out to both HRPP and FAST for comment.
Patricia O’Brien, an expert in Pacific history at Australian National University, agreed the situation was getting close to a coup although there was no element of force, adding it appeared HRPP was suspending the democratic process and ignoring multiple rulings of the court.
The situation was unprecedented since Samoa became independent from New Zealand in 1962, she said.
How this happened
On the face of it, the fight over which party has the right to govern Samoa comes down to a gender quota rule.
Initial results showed FAST and HRPP each won 25 seats in Parliament, with the final seat going to an independent MP, according to Samoa’s election commission.
Under Samoa’s constitution, at least 10% – or five of the 51 parliamentary seats – must be held by women. If the threshold is not met, then the highest performing unsuccessful female candidates are appointed. Five seats were won by women at the April 9 election, but that only constituted 9.8% of seats.