WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Samoa was plunged into a constitutional crisis Monday when the woman who won an election last month was locked out of Parliament and the previous leader claimed he remained in charge.
The fast-moving events marked the latest twist in a bitter power struggle that has been playing out in the small Pacific nation since it elected its first female leader. Not only is Samoa’s peace and stability at stake, but also its relationship with China.
On Monday morning, Prime Minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and her supporters showed up at parliament to form a new government, but were not allowed inside.
She and her FAST Party later took oaths and appointed ministers in a ceremony held under a tent in front of the locked Parliament, actions that opponents said were illegal.
The nation’s Supreme Court had earlier ordered the Parliament to convene. And the constitution requires that lawmakers meet within 45 days of an election, with Monday marking the final day by that count.
But Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who was prime minister for 22 years before his unexpected election loss, doesn’t appear ready to give up power. He was already one of the longest-serving leaders in the world.
Two powerful allies have been supporting Tuilaepa.
The nation’s head of state, Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II, wrote in a proclamation last week that he was suspending Parliament “for reasons that I will make known in due course.” On Sunday, the Parliament’s speaker backed him.
After Fiame was locked out on Monday, Tuilaepa held a news conference proclaiming his government remained in charge.
Samoan journalist Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson translated the back-and-forth into English on Twitter.
At his news conference, Tuilaepa said: “There is only one government in Samoa, even if we are just the custodian government. We remain in this role and operate business as usual.”
Meanwhile, Fiame told her supporters: “There will be a time when we will meet again, inside that House. Let us leave it to the law.”