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Two Rivals Claim Samoa’s Prime Ministership As Political Crisis Deepens

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi gestures during a news conference to mark the end of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Marlborough House in London, April 20, 2018.

The political crisis in Samoa has deepened as two rivals claim to be prime minister of the South Pacific island nation. Samoa lies about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, and has a population of about 200,000 people.

Samoans voted in a general election in early April. The result was very close, and both major parties have claimed victory.

The opposition FAST Party, led by Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, said it had secured the crucial support of an independent lawmaker to form a government with a 26-25 majority in parliament.

However, Samoa’s long serving leader, Tuila'epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, who has been in power since 1998, disputed the result. His refusal to stand down was described as a ‘coup’ by his opponents.

On Monday, the Samoan parliament was scheduled to administer the oath of office to Fiame Naomi Mata’afa as the nation’s first female prime minister. However, she and her colleagues were locked out of the building by officials loyal to the previous government despite a Supreme Court ruling that the session proceed.

So, instead prime minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata'afa — who is also the daughter of the country's first prime minister — took the oath of office in an ad hoc ceremony in a large tent outside after her party was locked out of parliament. Her political rivals said the swearing in was unconstitutional.

Court challenges are expected to follow.

George Carter, head of the Australian National University's Pacific Institute, is urging both sides to resolve their differences calmly.

“At the moment the country is still at peace despite the difference in Samoa’s ideology and ideals. But this is part of (the) political process in Samoa and part of that is being patient to allow this to take place,” Carter said.

The first nation to formally recognize Fiame Naomi Mata'afa as prime minister was the small Pacific archipelago of the Federated States of Micronesia.

A spokesperson for the United Nations secretary-general has urged Samoa “to find solutions to the current political situation through dialogue in the best interest of the people and institutions of Samoa.”

Australia and New Zealand have insisted democracy in Samoa must be respected.

Samoa’s economy has traditionally been dependent on foreign aid and remittances from citizens overseas as well as tourism, agriculture, and fishing.