New Zealand coverage of the attempt to overturn the results of Samoa’s national elections in April, when the opposition FAST Party won a one seat majority in parliament thanks to support from an independent MP, has largely been mindlessly anodyne. Take for example the unfortunate choice of words in the RNZ report (re-published in the NZ Herald) on the contested election: “the FAST party of Fiame Naomi Mataafa was expected to secure a majority of seats, overthrowing the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party and making Fiame Samoa’s first female prime minister.”
There is no “overthrowing” going on in Samoa, at least not by FAST. That would be a coup, putsch or “golpe,” and that would involve a violent blocking of the constitutionally legitimate and electorally validated political succession process.
Instead, what has happened so far is a (yet unfinished)) constitutional and therefore legal rotation or succession in elected government between the defeated incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the victorious former opposition, a splinter break-off from the long ruling government of Mr. Malielegaoi (the irony of the party name will be ignored here). After dominating Samoan politics since 1982 and with the last 23 years in power in its present form (where it continuously placed legal obstacles to the formation of competing political parties), the HRPP and PM Malielegaoi are a lame duck caretaker administration until the new parliament is convened and the FAST government installed. After a series of legal challenges by HRPP involving a provision that 10 percent of parliament be female (which would mean adding one more appointed female seat to parliament and create a 26-26 MP deadlock that forces a new election), the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposition that no new seat need be created and validated the results of the April 9 polls, opening the way for the sitting of a new parliament no more than 45 days after the election. That was to happen today.
Instead, the Malielegaoi government has blocked the move to sit a new parliament as per the Court’s order.
This is a troublesome move. Blocking rotation in government after a legitimate election is a very real attempt to overthrow the voter’s mandate. On Saturday Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi, the Head of State appointed by the Malielegaoi government in 2017, declared that parliament would not re-open today. He stated the reasons for his decision would be given â€œin due courseâ€ and left Apia for his home village several hours drive away. On Sunday the Samoan Supreme Court heard an emergency challenge to the Head of State’s proclamation and found it to be unlawful. The Samoan Attorney General, representing the caretaker administration, walked out on the proceedings. Because it was held on a Sunday, PM Malielegaoi claimed that it contravened â€œGod’s willâ€ and was therefore illegal (there is no constitutional provision against holding court hearings on Sundays). The Supreme Court rejected the accusations of irregularity and reiterated that the new parliament should be seated on the basis of the April 9 results. Instead, the Speaker of the House, a member of the HRPP, shuttered the doors of the Maota Fono, claiming that he follows the orders of the Head of State, not the Supreme Court. Coincidentally or not, the website for the Samoan Observer, the country’s main media outlet, has gone off-line. The stage is set for an authoritarian usurpation.
To be clear: political democracy is based on the principle that election losers accept adverse results in exchange for getting to compete again at pre-set intervals under fair conditions. Rotation in government is considered to be an intrinsic part of democratic governance and intrinsically good because it allows opposition parties to learn how to govern and allows former government parties to refresh and gain perspective when in opposition, all while vying for electorate support. That competitive pressure is considered to be what keeps the political process healthy if not entirely honest.
In other words, either one accepts the principle of the honest loss or one is anti-democratic. The April elections were honest and the HRPP lost–by a very small margin, but it lost nevertheless. Hence, for the HRPP the choice today is to be democratic or dictatorial. Unhappily, what is appears to be going on in Samoa is not an attempted coup by the FAST party after its victories in the April election and in the Supreme Court. Instead, it is a variation on an (attempted) “constitutional” coup carried out by the defeated HRPP.
That brings up the issue of force and outside intervention. The Samoan Police have surrounded the parliament grounds (where FAST are staging a sit-in), but it remains unclear as to who they are are loyal to. Perhaps under the circumstances we should be thankful that Samoa does not have a military. But if the Police are loyal to the Head of State (who is a former police officer as well as an ordained minister) rather than the Samoan Constitution, then the authoritarian “auto-coup” could be successful.
There is more. Under the terms of the 1962 Friendship Treaty signed between Samoa and New Zealand, NZ is duty-bound to come to Samoa’s aid in a time of crisis. As unpalatable that may be given NZ’s history with Samoa and however unforeseen this particular crisis may be, it falls within the scope of the Treaty. But its invocation depends on an official request from Samoa so the issue is who has the legal right to issue that request should they deem it necessary to do so.
Given the circumstances, a legal request can only come from the legitimately elected government that has Samoan Supreme Court sanction. That would be a FAST-led coalition. But it runs the risk of provoking large scale unrest between political factions if the Samoan Police side with HRPP and people decide to take matters into their own hands with street violence. That then raises the question of the nature of any NZ intervention if the Friendship Treaty is invoked. Given NZ-Samoan history, a minimal amount of force should be used, with the NZDF (if need be) only used in a support role for NZ Police intervention units.
Most importantly (and pressingly), diplomacy can avoid invocation of the Treaty and thereby help avert intervention. MFAT needs to be on the case now because it is quite possible that other foreign actors with vested interests in Samoa seize the opportunity to extend their influence in it by favouring one side or another in the impasse. So diplomatic urgency is required for three compelling reasons: 1) to avoid invocation of the Friendship Treaty as a means of resolving a political dispute; 2) to preserve Samoan democracy in the face of authoritarian resistance from within; and 3) to prevent extra-regional (and non-democratic) actors to influence how the political process plays out.
The Samoan diaspora can help in this regard by signalling support for democracy. Although Samoan expats cannot vote in their home elections (thanks to Tess Newton Cain for the head’s up), it would be helpful if expats voiced support for the political system rather than a partisan preference given a contentious outcome. That could assist in easing partisan and social conflict in their homeland.
At the end of today the new FAST majority was sworn into office by the Supreme Court in the Supreme Court building rather than parliament because they were locked out of the Folo by the Clerk and Speaker of the House, both HRPP minions. The farce–some say typical of recent Samoan politics– is now about symbolism rather than the substance of political change, as if the location of the investiture ceremony and who gets to sit where when it comes to exercising governmental authority matters for the exercise of elected sovereign power. To his credit, the sitting Police Commissioner has taken an agnostic stance about the political shenanigans and seems disposed to adhere to constitutional edicts and respect for the rule of law. If that is the case, no foreign intervention is necessary and Samoan bureaucrats do not need to look to a particular building for their instructions when it comes to the continuity of State business. All that is needed now for a peaceful transition that reaffirms Samoans commitment to democracy is for foreign governments to recognize the realty of the situation. Word to the wise: It is all over but the HRPP shouting, and the sooner that they shut up or are ignored, the better for Samoa things will be.
As is often said: time to move on. The next days will tell if Samoa takes a political step forward or backwards. Best then, to illuminate and encourage the path ahead.