Fiame Naomi Mata'afa

APIA, Samoa: Samoa's opposition claimed victory in an election standoff yesterday after court rulings backed its bid to form a new government and install Fiame Naomi Mata'afa as the Pacific island nation's first woman prime minister. Hundreds of FAST Party supporters sang hymns and cheered outside the Supreme Court in Apia after two vital decisions went in favor of the fledgling opposition group led by Mata'afa. "It's a day to give thanks to God and to all of you for having the heart for this country," she said.

"This is not about you or me, this is about the future of Samoa and protecting our inheritance of our ancestors. We were almost too late, it was nearly taken forcefully from us." Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said he would appeal the rulings, which threaten to end his 22-year tenure in the top job. "There are major reasons for an appeal to be lodged. These are mechanisms of the judiciary in the pursuit of justice," he said in a televised address. The court upheld the results of Samoa's April 9 general election, ordering that parliament convene and plans for a second ballot this Friday be scrapped.

It also struck down the election of a government lawmaker, giving FAST a one-seat majority over the incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which until last month's vote had ruled Samoa virtually unchallenged for almost four decades. The decision leaves the nation of 220,000 on the brink of a seismic political shift unthinkable when FAST formed in July last year. The party said the Supreme Court's unanimous verdict gave it the majority to form the government. "Glory to our Father! Now its time to get to work," it said on Facebook.

'Feels significant'

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the judicial process should be allowed to run its course but the election of Mata'afa in Samoa would be a "historic decision". "Obviously we've seen some decisions today which could be deemed the final outcome. "It feels significant to me, having been a member of the Pacific Islands Forum... it's certainly a meaningful thing when you see a historic decision made when an office is held by a woman."

After the election, FAST won support from an independent lawmaker to gain 26 seats, which it believed gave the party a majority. But election officials then awarded the HRPP an extra seat, saying it was needed to meet a constitutional requirement setting out the minimum quota of women in parliament. As the constitutional crisis dragged on, officials called another election for May 21, prompting the opposition to claim the government was trying to retain power through "trickery".

Samoa gained independence in 1962 after nearly 50 years as a New Zealand protectorate and the HRPP has been in power since 1982, apart from a brief coalition period in 1986-87. FAST leader Mata'afa is the daughter of the independent nation's first prime minister and is seen as a pioneering feminist in the conservative, staunchly religious nation.

She was previously with the HRPP and served as Malielegaoi's deputy until they fell out last year over a suite of controversial laws introduced by the government to control the judiciary. She is recognized on the global stage as a leading voice in the fight for gender equality and is also outspoken on the issue of climate change. - AFP