Samoa’s first female prime minister has been sworn into office in a tent after she was locked out of parliament by her opponent, who has refused to step down.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa took the oath of office in a marquee in the parliamentary gardens, leaving uncertainty over who controls the Pacific island nation.
Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has been prime minister for 22 years, is ignoring a court order to step down and hand over power.
Mata’afa, 64, arrived at parliament on Monday expecting to be sworn in but found herself barred from the building, which had been locked by allies of Malielegaoi in advance of her arrival.
Instead, Mata’afa and members of her FAST party were sworn in gathered in the garden in the capital Apia, with supporters looking on.
In a statement, the FAST party said: “Democracy must prevail, always. There can be no exceptions from this fundamental principle. Those who claim otherwise and act accordingly play with fire.”
The ad-hoc ceremony was rejected by rivals as unofficial. Malielegaoi called the improvised swearing-in ceremony “illegal and unlawful”.
The impasse comes a month after the closest-run general election in Samoa’s history, which was followed by bitter disputes and legal challenges.
Malielegaoi’s Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) was ousted from power after four decades by Mata’afa’s FAST party. Both parties won 25 seats, but a single independent MP secured victory for FAST.
That led to legal manoeuvring by the HRPP, which claimed its opponents had not correctly met the quota of female MPs.
Samoa’s election commission revoked the results of the April vote and called a fresh election for 21 May.
But five days ahead of the re-run, the supreme court ruled against HRPP, re-endorsing the results of the election and ordering the swearing in of Mata’afa to go ahead.
After 22 years in charge, Malielegaoi is the world’s second longest-serving prime minister.
After serving as Polynesia’s first female deputy prime minister, Mata’afa success in the general election makes her only the second woman in the region to head a government.
She is the daughter of the country’s first prime minister and has been politically active since the mid-1980s.
The majority FAST party in Samoa has described the caretaker government’s actions this morning in locking it out of parliament in Apia as tantamount to a coup.
Right now, Samoa has a situation where two sides led by two political heavyweights both consider themselves the legitimate government of Samoa.