Fiame Naomi Mataafa is poised to become Samoa’s first female prime minister, after the Pacific nation’s top court helped break a month-long political impasse that followed a tightly contested election in April.
Samoa’s Supreme Court on Monday afternoon overruled an attempt by the head of state Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II to void the election results, local media reported.
The top court also rejected the post-election creation of an additional parliamentary seat that briefly gave the incumbent government a majority.
The court decisions clear the path for Mataafa’s FAST party to form a government, ending the rule of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has fought to hold onto power after governing for 22 years.
Mataafa, a former deputy prime minister, said it was a “a day to give thanks to God and to all of you for having the heart for this country”.
“This is not about you or me, this is about the future of Samoa and protecting our inheritance of our ancestors,” she said. “We were almost too late, it was nearly taken forcefully from us.”
The daughter of independent Samoa’s first prime minister, Mataafa was previously with Malielegaoi’s HRPP, which has been in power for four decades.
The 64-year-old split with the government last year after opposing changes to Samoa’s constitution and judicial system.
Malielegaoi said he would appeal the court’s rulings.
“There are major reasons for an appeal to be lodged,” he said in a televised address. “These are mechanisms of the judiciary in the pursuit of justice.”
The April election initially ended in a 25-25 tie between the FAST Party and the HRPP, with one independent candidate.
But then the electoral commissioner appointed another HRPP candidate, supposedly to conform to constitutional gender quotas. The independent candidate, meanwhile, chose to go with Mataafa, making it 26-26.
The head of state then stepped in to announce fresh elections to break the tie. Those elections in the nation of 220,000 were supposed to be held later this week.
Mataafa’s party appealed and the Supreme Court finally ruled against both the appointed candidate and the plans for the new elections, restoring the FAST Party to a 26-25 majority.
Following the decisions, hundreds of FAST supporters, dressed in red, gathered outside the court and celebrated with singing.
“Glory to our Father!” the FAST Party wrote on Facebook. “Now its time to get to work.”
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it felt like a significant moment.
“It is certainly a meaningful thing when you see a historic decision made when the office is held by a woman,” Ardern said.
Samoa gained independence in 1962 after nearly 50 years as a New Zealand protectorate.
The Pacific nation shut its borders early in the coronavirus pandemic and has any avoided widespread community transmission of COVID-19 infections.