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EDITORIAL: By the Samoa Observer Editorial Board

What a shame it had to happen as it did.

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa taking the oath of office to govern Samoa seven weeks after being elected is an event of generational, regional, and international significance.

Today and for her conduct since April 9, we congratulate Fiame. We wish her ability to form a workable administration proceeds and the very best in government, as the leader of a nation whose fate is twinned with Samoa’s own.

There will, of course, be legal challenges. But the symbolism of Monday’s event was an assertion of power by the rightful winner of the election. It was necessary, not only to uphold the constitution but to remind many in Samoan politics that they exist to serve the people, not powerful interests.

The proper place for the occasion of Fiame’s swearing-in was inside our chamber of democracy — the people’s house; the Parliament.

But it was not to be. Instead, Fiame and the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party had to hold an unprecedented ad-hoc swearing-in, something they were forced to do to ensure that a constitutional requirement that Parliament meets 45 days after a national election was met.

Perhaps we should have expected that the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), having played political games and thumbed its nose at the rule of law since it lost its majority at last month’s election, was not about to face up to reality and honour democracy.

It is clear that they continue to intend to play the spoiler’s role after not showing up to Monday’s swearing-in and stating that the absence of the Head of State had rendered the event invalid.

The Head of State’s attempts to cancel Monday’s court-ordered Parliamentary sitting were quashed; this was the fourth ruling against HRPP attempts to prevent the forming of a new government all in one week.

Having exhausted legal avenues they resorted to the cheap tactic of simply locking the doors to the people’s house. The party has no right to make this nation hostage while they continue to cook up last-ditch schemes to hold onto power.

The rambling, shambling circus that has continued on now for seven weeks since last month’s election; it was really resolved within seven days.

In the interim, it began as a tantrum by a leader who could not stand up to the truth came close to ending with him pulling out every stop to derail proper government.

The actions of Tuila’epa Dr Sa’ilele Malielegaoi and those who aided and abetted him brought dishonour upon this nation.

These were the actions of someone who expects others to submit to his power; is unaccustomed to hearing “no”; and forgotten his office only derives its authority from the legitimacy provided by people.

When the history of this country is written, these actions will largely define their legacy: refusing to place the value of the nation above their own self-interest.

Many descriptors have been reached for by observers seeking to capture the magnitude of the events that have gripped this nation.

None proved hyperbolic in the end. It was only at the last minute and by the intervention of a man who acted in accordance with the high principles that befit his office: His Honour, Chief Justice Satiu Simativa Perese.

If anything captured the crisis of Samoan democracy, it was the image of Justice Satiu, dressed in full judicial regalia approaching the front doors of the Legislative Assembly with his judicial colleagues only to find them locked before humbly turning on his heel and walking away.

And so it has been. The party that has ruled over Samoa for decades has played games with the law in the weeks after its election loss. Even on Monday night as Tuila’epa was invoking threats of legal action he was simultaneously – yet again – trashing the courts and casting doubt on their independence.

Perhaps his frustrations are starting to show with his failure to get his way via the judiciary.

Fiame has shown humility, calm, and wisdom as all around her has turned chaotic. Not once has she given off any sign of panic. Nor has she sought to stoke public discontent as a political tactic.

She has more than earned her position as this nation’s new Prime Minister.

Last week alone, on four separate occasions the party was handed four separate losses in court over attempts to scrap the election of forestalling the forming of a new government.

Already under attack from Tuila’epa while in office, the judiciary has shown remarkable poise throughout this political crisis and served as the defining line between chaos and order.

But given the tenor of Tuila’epa’s press conference on Monday, we can expect there to be no end to the games.

He disputes the legitimacy of Fiame’s signing in.

As he notes, the Head of State was not, as the constitution requires, present for the swearing-in of her Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party MPs.

But similarly, the Head of State was fast taking Samoa down a path of lawlessness. If no swearing-in had taken place on Monday then the government would be in breach of the law of the land. Samoa would truly be in uncharted and lawless territory. What would have happened to the nation then?

We anticipate Fiame’s swearing-in it to be challenged, ridiculed and diminished by Tuila’epa. But we also believe his voice is now consigned to slowly fade into the background, having done incalculable damage to his own once-proud political legacy.

Ultimately though ugly political disputes are resolved by the exercise of law and order, a low point that civil society should never reach.

We have seen a recent upsurge in divisive rhetoric among the people of Samoa, dogmatically backing one party or the other as the true winners of the April 9 election.

It is our sincere hope that, whatever transpires, these words do not translate into real unrest.

But it was heartening to see the Police Commissioner, Fuiavailiili Egon Keil, escorted Justice Satiu on his unsuccessful walk.

It was not his officers who had the building locked.

But when asked for comment on what role the police would take, stating that he considered it the force’s job to uphold the rule of law, which, he said, included the constitution — the ultimate legal document.

“This is what we do every day,” he told reporters. “We’ll continue down that road until this thing ends.”

It is our sincere hope that the commissioner does not have to become involved to further mar what should be a proud moment in our democratic history. But he has made a clear signal of intent that he is on the side of the rule of law: its provisions on whether an election can be voided or a swearing-in can be voided in breach of constitutional provisions has been made painfully clear this month.

But another element of legitimacy is popular acceptance.

Rulers ultimately derive their authority from being recognised by the public as those in charge.

We call on the public to put this sorry saga behind us and to unite behind a new Prime Minister.

Fiame has shown humility, calm, and wisdom as all around her has turned chaotic. Not once has she given off any sign of panic. Nor has she sought to stoke public discontent as a political tactic.

She has more than earned her position as this nation’s new Prime Minister.

This is Samoa. We do not need force to be exercised to make a swearing-in law. We have already spoken at the ballot box, nearly two months ago. In the meantime, we have seen disgraceful attempts to flout and undermine the rule of law.

Whatever happens next we must never forget that politicians – and the people they appoint – serve only with authority that comes from us and us alone – the people. Ultimately we set the standards for their acceptable conduct and are the ultimate arbiters of what is politically right.

Published by the Samoa Observer on 25 May 2021. Republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.

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