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Samoa PM-elect locked out of parliament amid 'bloodless coup' fears

Two landmark Supreme Court rulings so far fail to dislodge incumbent

Fiame Naomi Mata'afa is expected to become Samoa's first female prime minister after winning an election and two Supreme Court rulings, but the incumbent is resisting the transition.   © AP

HONG KONG -- Samoa was expected to wake up with its first female prime minister on Monday morning. Instead, the country awakened to what some are calling a "bloodless coup," after election winner Fiame Naomi Mata'afa and her party were locked out of parliament.

Fiame and her supporters have decided to conduct their own swearing-in ceremony outside parliament. But with the current prime minister refusing to relinquish power, it is unclear what will happen next.

This is the latest in a flurry of developments that have worried voters, who picked Fiame's Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party in a tight race last month. From Australia and New Zealand to China, the rest of the region is closely eyeing the outcome, too: Fiame has suggested she would cancel a $128 million port development backed by Beijing.

Fiame was poised to unseat Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), after FAST won a Supreme Court challenge a week ago -- confirming its one-seat majority. But everything changed over the weekend.

Samoa's head of state, Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Saluavi II, issued a brief proclamation suspending parliament "until such time as to be announced and for reasons that I will make known in due course," stunning journalists and commentators.

On Sunday, a FAST spokesperson told Nikkei Asia the party was "seeking a court declaration the writ is unlawful." The same day, at the Supreme Court, police were reportedly guarding all the entry points, with media not allowed to observe the developments. Then came the news that the court had overturned the proclamation.

After his second Supreme Court loss, Tuilaepa took to Facebook Live, where he spoke about the virtues of a good leader. In the past, he has said he was "appointed by God," according to local media; 98% of Samoa's population identify as Christian.

Any celebration over the Supreme Court's second ruling was short-lived. The speaker of parliament, Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa'afisi, said the legislature would not convene until the head of state made a new proclamation allowing it.

On Monday morning, when Fiame and FAST found parliament's doors locked and under police guard, Clerk of the House Tiatia Lima Graeme Tualaulelei said the legislature would open "at some point, at an appropriate time, after courts process," according to Samoan journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, who has been translating the developments into English.

Fiame said the party would "continue to wait and pursue other means to make this happen."

"If you are not with us, we will continue to sit here in the hallowed grounds of parliament that belongs to our people," Fiame said. "If you will not let us into the house. We will stay here."

Images circulating show Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese clad in official attire, being escorted by police to and from parliament in an attempt to uphold a Supreme Court order to convene the legislature.

The HRPP has held power in Samoa for 40 years, and Tuilaepa has sought to tighten his grip following his party's election loss.

On Monday, he addressed media and accused FAST of disrespecting the government and process, saying they had "desecrated" parliament "and have made a ruckus in our hallowed grounds." He also accused the rival party of breaking and entering, and said Parliament House is "owned by the government."

"The court cannot tell us to do this and that," he said, according to New Zealand media outlet Stuff.

Bigger regional players have issued carefully measured statements so far. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne tweeted that "it is important that all parties respect the rule of law and democratic processes. We have faith in Samoa's institutions including the judiciary."

Responding to a question on the developments, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern struck a similar tone, saying, "We have faith in Samoa's democracy and in their institutions and you'll see that the judiciary here [is] playing a very strong role via the Supreme Court in sharing their view on the implications of the election and the way it needs to be upheld."

A spokesperson for FAST, however, sounded the alarm over "democracy being locked down" and called the situation a coup. He said FAST was abiding by the rule of law, and that party leaders were meeting to decide their next steps.

Fiame's rise to the cusp of power has also raised questions about the future of Samoa's relationship with China.

Earlier, she told Reuters that she would be scrapping the $128 million port development, given Samoa's size and existing debts to China. Many viewed this as a break away from Tuilaepa's closeness with Beijing.

Still, Fiame told Nikkei Asia on Saturday that Samoa's relationship with China would largely stay the same, calling the giant a "very good development partner."

"I think we need to separate the issue," she said. "We would not put the priority on a wharf of that scale at this time, we're a small island state. Our wharfs, our airport, they cater very adequately for our needs."

At the same time, she said: "Samoa has been probably one of the first countries in the Pacific to form diplomatic relations with China. With our administration I don't see any change with that. But we need to view what the global situation is, and where we fit in in that, and to manage that."

First there is the matter of resolving the political crisis.

Under Samoa's constitution, parliament must sit within 45 days of an election. Monday is the last day for this to be possible. Tuilaepa had earlier called for another election.

Fiame on Saturday told Nikkei she was grateful for the Supreme Court being able to "perform their role and function and especially their duty on protecting the rule of law." But she seemed well-aware that there was still uncertainty ahead.

"Our party has been in camp with our supporters so we celebrated in the usual Samoan way -- we had our prayers and then of course we had dinner. But no party," she said with a laugh, just hours before FAST's lawyers would go into overdrive.

With the budget due in June, Fiame is eager to get started. She said it was "in everyone's interest that a budget is in place so the normal working and operation of government can take place."

Expressing hope for a "smooth" transition, she suggested she would be willing to work with the opposition.

"At the end of the day, when the government is determined, the government is there to serve everyone," she said. "That's my message."

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