The Samoan Coup is Pathetic

The Desperate Death Throes of a Regime Bring Into Focus the Dangers of a Long Rule

Human Rights Protection Party leader and disputed Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi.

On the 9th April 2021, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi lost.

The Samoan Prime Minister had been in power for the last 22 years, his party, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), had won every election since the creation of true democracy in Samoa.

Initially the right wing party had been only challenged from its ideological twin, another conservative party with very traditional Christian values (this party was also plagued by an absolutely unbelievable amount of mergers and name changes that couldn’t’ve helped matters).

It was only in 2011 when a solid ideological difference emerged in Samoa’s political space. The endlessly name-changed conservative party was phased out, and a new left wing movement was established to unseat the reign of the HRPP. The Tatua Samoa Party. And it flopped.

Tatua Samoa confusingly campaigned on both an increase in healthcare and education spending and the removal of the Value Added Goods and Services Tax. When asked the simple question: how? Tatua Samoa deputy leader memorably declared that “God will provide for us”. The party’s optics were not helped when their leadership stated they would be seeking divine intervention in the upcoming election, or when one of their founders requested to run for the HRPP.

Needless to say the HRPP and Malielegaoi won in a landslide. A result which was repeated in 2016 when Tatua Samoa managed to only secure 8% of the vote, and two seats in Samoa’s parliament.

This is all to say that Malielegaoi was not prepared for what happened next.

On the 9th April 2021, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi lost.

The challenge came from within his own party.

HRPP deputy leader Fiame Naomi Mataʻafa broke with her party over a controversial bill being rushed through the Legislative Assembly: “The Land and Titles Bill”.

Faith in the One True God Party Founder and Leader, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa

The Bill empowers the traditional land courts of Samoa, which operate on Samoan customary law. If executed well, these courts could be used like the customary law systems of Aboriginal Australians, however, they have been instead found to unfairly persecute those of minority religions, as well as exact personal grudges. These are often cited in tandem alongside more minor and process-based criticisms such as the courts using verbal-only rulings.

After the passage of this Bill Naomi Mata’afa broke away from the HRPP to form her own Faith in the One True God Party (FAST, when abbreviated in Samoan).

FAST kept the socially conservative values of the HRPP, and campaigned almost exclusively on the removal of the Land and Titles Bill, a cause which many of the HRPP’s representatives sided with, and therefore defected to. All of this just in time for the 2021 elections.

And it is now I say for the final time…

On the 9th April 2021, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi lost.

FAST and the HRRP managed to secure an equal amount of seats in the Legislative Assembly (25 each in the 51 member assembly). Needless to say the independent who would break the tie saw some wining and dining by both parties.

But it was FAST who Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio eventually decided to side with, making Naomi Mata’afa the first female prime minister of Samoa.

And here is where Malielegaoi begins his desperate clinging to power.

Exploiting a rule in the constitution that states the Legislative Assembly must be at least 10% female, he states that only 9.8% of the Assembly are women, and therefore the Assembly must expand to include another woman, one who is a member of the HRPP.

Completely ignoring the irony of deposing Samoa’s first female prime minister in the name of gender equality, Malielegaoi declares another election must be held, as his fraudulent bad-faith ploy had created a hung parliament. A decision that FAST was quick to take to the Supreme Court.

And the Supreme Court sided with FAST on both the potential rescheduled election and the undemocratic installation of a representative.

So far, Malielegaoi has acted in extreme bad faith, upsetting the peaceful transfer of power in a country that has never had a transfer of power in its recent history.

But on 25th May, the day when Mata’afa was supposed to be sworn in, Malielegaoi had locked her out of the Legislative Assembly.

A coup akin to a toddler locking himself in his room because he doesn’t want to go to bed yet.

Malielegaoi hurled petty insults at FAST, calling them “the Mafia” and “the devil”, as well as saying they had “mental issues needing professional help”. He also pledged his intent to remain Samoa’s prime minister, all the while the true leader was being sworn in under a tent outside the Assembly.

This has rightfully been called a “bloodless coup”, but it is also incredibly pathetic.

From the stupidity of equating legitimacy to access to a building not seen since the likes of Louis XVI, to the childishly incoherent slander, which is all framed by the fact that the HRPP simply has no alliances with which to maintain a government. Which is probably why most Pacific foreign ministers have made vague statements about having ‘faith in the judiciary’, a strong stance isn’t worth it because Malielegaoi’s regime is in its death throes.

But this isn’t to undercut the significance of this coup. If this is the beginning of a new Samoan two-party state, then this is a rough start, and will leave a scar on the nation’s democracy for years to come. An assault on the rule of law has a fallout, regardless of eventual outcome (just ask the USA). FAST will have to contend with a party that attempted to seized power unlawfully, an opposition side that isn’t playing by the same rules. A system wherein one party is democratic and the other isn’t, is not a two party democracy, and that is a fact that Samoa will have to grapple with and remedy in the coming years.

However, the more pertinent takeaway for international observers like myself is that we should’ve all seen this coming. This is the ‘Parable of No Opposition’.

For decades Samoa was ruled by one man, and longer before that by a single party. Throughout this time it faced little organised opposition, from a slew of independents in the early days to a constantly renamed mirror of itself to a party whose primary electoral strategy seemed to have been divine intervention.

Without opposition, the HRPP became arrogant, rushing through a bill that drew concern from the international community and even from within. And after over twenty years of uninterrupted unopposed rule, a peaceful transfer of power was an impossible task.

A strong opposition party is an answer, term limits on prime ministers is another, but above all, this is a warning against complacency, especially in untested or fledgling democracies.

Because now we know for twenty years Samoa was ruled by an autocrat who just happened to have the votes on his side.

Australian Opinion-Haver, #Warren2024