A do-it-yourself inauguration in Samoa

Since Friday’s brief update, Samoa’s post-election stand-off has matured into a full-blown constitutional crisis. Outgoing prime minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, in office since 1998, lost last month’s election by one seat, 26-25, to the opposition party, FAST, but he is refusing to go quietly.

Yesterday, being 45 days after the election, was the deadline for parliament to meet to install the new government. On Saturday evening the head of state, Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aleto’a Sualauvi II, presumably acting on Tuila’epa’s advice, suspended the sitting of parliament, but the following day the Supreme Court, sitting in chambers, declared the suspension unlawful.

Nonetheless, when FAST’s MPs arrived at parliament yesterday to be sworn in, they found the building locked and guarded by police. They adjourned, not – as their French predecessors did in 1789 – to a tennis court but to a tent pitched outside the building, where their leader, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, named her cabinet and took the oath as prime minister.

So Samoa now has two governments, each accusing the other of having staged a coup. Tuila’epa, who seems to have a Trump-like addiction to social media, has been particularly incendiary in his comments. But Fiame’s government is the one with the allegiance of both the judges and the parliamentary majority, so it’s hard to see how Tuila’epa can prevail in the absence of armed force. And Samoa, very sensibly, has no military.

The South Pacific is far from the world’s worst region for democratic government, but it’s not all that it could be, and as the major regional power, Australia needs to take some of the responsibility for that. We have often turned a blind eye to autocratic practices and failed to encourage respect for democracy and human rights. Australia was all but a co-conspirator in the overthrow of Fijian democracy in 2006, and in the same year eagerly provided troops to assist Tonga’s semi-feudal government against pro-democracy protests.

Add to that the dreadful mess we made as a colonial power in Papua New Guinea, and the much worse devastation (if on a smaller scale) that we’ve inflicted on our de facto protectorate in Nauru, and you might well fear the worst from any Australian involvement in Samoa.

In fact, foreign minister Marise Payne was reasonably measured on the subject, saying “It is important that all parties respect the rule of law and democratic processes. We have faith in Samoa’s institutions including the judiciary.” In context that’s supportive of the Fiame government, but it could do with being more explicit – as was New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, who said that her position was “simply to support Samoa’s institutions and its democracy.”

The appropriate step now would be to congratulate Fiame on her assumption of office and to make it clear that her predecessor can expect no help from Australia. The rhetorical appeal to “all parties”, while possibly well-meaning, risks obscuring that message. This is not a case where compromise is called for, but rather where one side needs to acknowledge that it is in the wrong.

You can follow developments as they unfold on Radio New Zealand’s live coverage.

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