More than three months after winning an election that sparked a constitutional crisis, Samoa’s first female prime minister was yesterday eventually able to take office.
A smiling Fiame Naomi Mata’afa sat in the chair her predecessor had been reluctant to relinquish after 22 years in power. She held her first Cabinet meeting, with members of her Faith in the One God of Samoa (FAST) party dressed in the distinctive red clothes that party members and supporters often wear.
Mata’afa, 64, said they were ready to begin their work.
Photo: AFP / The FAST Party Samoa
That could include a reset of the nation’s relationship with China. On the campaign trail, Mata’afa had pledged to stop a US$100 million port development backed by Beijing, calling the project excessive for a nation that is already heavily in debt to China.
After a knife-edge election result in April, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi refused to concede defeat, despite several court rulings that went against him.
He had two powerful allies in the nation’s head of state and the speaker, who were able to stall the transfer of power.
A bizarre scene played out in May when Mata’afa and her FAST party were locked out of the Samoan Legislative Assembly, with Malielegaoi saying he was still in charge. Mata’afa and her party members took oaths and appointed ministers in a ceremony held under a tent in front of the locked Legislative Assembly.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mata’afa said that day was charged with emotion.
“It could have gone pear-shaped, but we were able to keep calm,” she said. “We could have stormed the building and knocked down the doors, like in Washington DC, but we just sat and sang a few hymns, sang a prayer.”
Last week, the nation’s top court ruled the unusual swearing-in ceremony that day had been constitutional, and Malielegaoi finally conceded. Mata’afa had previously served as his deputy.
She said in the interview that she resigned after becoming concerned that Malielegaoi and fellow lawmakers had gone “off the rails” by trying to politically intervene in the nation’s court system and judiciary.
“It was a classic case of power and corruption,” Mata’afa said. “We were slipping away from the rule of law, and I didn’t like that, but most of party were happy to go along with it.”
Mata’afa’s election win is seen as a milestone not only for Samoa, which is conservative and Christian, but also for the South Pacific, which has had few female leaders.
Mata’afa said she did not think her gender was a big issue in the election, and that her role in the traditional chiefly system was perhaps more important to voters, but she hoped that she might be a positive role model for Pacific women in other fields, showing what they could achieve.
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