Samoa has a democratic political system with regular elections, though the same political party had been in government for decades until 2021, and only traditional heads of families are eligible to run as candidates. The judiciary is independent, and civil liberties are generally respected.
- The April parliamentary elections resulted in a tie between the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) and the opposition Fa‘atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, with the outcome decided by a single independent who opted to support FAST.
- After the elections, the Office of the Electoral Commissioner sought to add an extra seat for the HRPP through its interpretation of the country’s gender quota, and the head of state attempted to call fresh elections on the grounds that neither side had a majority, but both moves were struck down by the Supreme Court in May.
- Although the outgoing government still refused to concede and challenged the legality of the FAST government’s swearing-in ceremony, the courts eventually cleared the way for the new government to begin work in July.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The parliament elects a largely ceremonial head of state every five years; a limit of two terms was adopted through a 2019 constitutional amendment. By custom rather than constitutional requirement, the position is given to one of the country’s four paramount chiefs. In 2017, the parliament elected Tuimaleali‘ifano Va‘aletoa Sualauvi II as head of state.
The head of government is the prime minister, who must have the parliament’s support. In the wake of the April 2021 parliamentary elections, Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa of FAST began work as prime minster in July after the courts resolved a lengthy dispute over the legality of her swearing-in ceremony outside the parliament in May.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Under rules that took effect in 2021, the Legislative Assembly consists of 51 members elected in single-member constituencies. If less than 10 percent of the members elected by ordinary means are women, the highest-polling female candidates are declared elected until the required quota is reached. Elections are held every five years.
In the April 2021 elections, the ruling HRPP captured 25 seats, as did the newly formed opposition FAST party. The remaining seat was won by an independent, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio, who decided to support FAST. However, the Office of the Electoral Commissioner announced an extra seat for the HRPP on the grounds that the five women elected constituted 9.8 percent of the 51 members, short of the required 10 percent. This would give each side 26 seats. Citing the supposed tie, the head of state called for fresh elections.
Both the electoral commissioner’s interpretation of the gender quota and the head of state’s effort to call snap elections were struck down by the Supreme Court in May. The new parliament was ordered to sit by May 24 to select a new government. The head of state issued the required proclamation, but withdrew it for reasons he did not explain. The Supreme Court then upheld the initial proclamation and declared its withdrawal unlawful. With the incumbent leadership still refusing to concede, the outgoing speaker prevailed upon the parliamentary clerk to lock the doors of the legislature, prompting FAST lawmakers to gather outside the building and participate in Mata‘afa’s impromptu swearing-in ceremony, which was eventually upheld by the courts in July.
In September, the new FAST government at first refused to swear in the HRPP’s members of parliament, on the grounds that they rejected the election outcome and the authority of the new speaker. The Supreme Court stepped in yet again to require the HRPP lawmakers to be sworn into office, and the lengthy constitutional crisis subsequently eased. FAST made further gains in November by-elections, solidifying its governing majority.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The constitutional and legal framework for elections is largely democratic and fairly implemented. However, only matai (family heads who hold honorific customary titles) are allowed to stand as candidates. There are currently at least 60,000 matai titles recognized by the Land and Titles Court, though individuals often hold multiple titles. Only about 11 percent of matai titleholders are women. Candidates are also subject to residency and traditional village service requirements. A 1990 reform, supported by a referendum based on universal suffrage, granted all adult citizens over 21 years of age the right to vote in elections, which had previously been limited to matai.
Legislation adopted in September 2021 allowed absentee voting within Samoa, meaning voters in the imminent by-elections would not have to travel to their home constituencies to cast ballots.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
There are no major constraints on the formation and operation of political parties, but parties must win a minimum of eight seats to qualify for formal recognition within the legislature. The opposition Tautua Samoa Party fell from 13 seats to two after the 2016 elections, leaving the parliament with just one recognized party. However, several other parties registered in the years leading up to the April 2021 elections, including FAST in 2020, and the elections themselves confirmed that there were no significant obstacles to party formation and competition.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because several political parties, including the current ruling party, have formed and competed for power in recent years.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
There are no obvious obstacles that prevent the opposition from increasing its support and gaining power through elections. The former HRPP government, having been in power since the 1980s, developed an effective campaign machinery during its incumbency, but it harmed its own interests in the 2021 elections by allowing multiple candidates to run in single districts, splitting its vote and facilitating opposition victories.
In 2020, two smaller opposition parties—Tumua ma Puleono and the Samoa National Democratic Party—had announced that they would contest the 2021 elections as an alliance under the FAST banner. The opposition benefited from a number of preelection defections from the HRPP, including that of Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa herself, who had served as a deputy prime minister until September 2020.
Although the HRPP incumbents contested the FAST victory in 2021, the courts ultimately ensured a democratic transfer of power. November 2021 by-elections strengthened the new FAST government, leaving it with 31 seats and the HRPP with 22, including two additional seats granted to HRPP women candidates under the gender quota.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because a new political coalition entered government after parliamentary elections, defeating a party that had been in power for decades.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
While voters and candidates are largely free from undue interference with their political choices, traditional village councils consisting of local leaders with matai titles exercise considerable influence through candidate endorsements. Those who use the electoral laws to challenge the councils’ preferred candidates in court have sometimes faced customary penalties such as banishment.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
While women and members of ethnic minority groups have full voting rights, individuals must hold a matai title in order to qualify as electoral candidates, meaning fewer women are eligible in practice. A sizeable minority of villages still do not allow women to hold matai titles, and few women participate in village council meetings. Members of the fa‘afafine community—Samoans who are assigned male gender at birth but have a fluid or feminine gender identity—can also be matai, though they have generally not run as candidates in elections to date.
The 2016 elections marked the first application of the gender quota ensuring that at least 10 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women. If fewer than that number are elected in normal constituency contests, the unsuccessful female candidates with the most votes are awarded additional seats. One extra seat was consequently added to the 2016 parliament, and two were added after the 2021 by-elections.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
The prime minister and cabinet determine and implement government policies without improper interference by outside groups, though the restrictive features of the electoral system weaken the democratic credentials of elected officials to some extent, and the reluctance of the new FAST government to swear in opposition members of parliament in the wake of the postelection crisis in 2021 suggested ongoing political dysfunction.
The FAST government encountered considerable resistance from within the senior echelons of the public service, which had long worked closely with the HRPP. The clerk of the Legislative Assembly and the attorney general, both of whom were involved in constitutional crisis, were dismissed in September, as was a top official at the Finance Ministry in August. An August “open letter” from “affected and concerned public servants” criticized their treatment by the new government and was referred to the Public Service Commission.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Independent entities including the Office of the Ombudsman, the Public Service Commission, and law enforcement agencies pursue allegations of corruption by public officials. However, corruption remains a problem and a cause of public discontent, and the government has at times resisted calls for a stronger response.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
While the government generally operates with transparency, the effectiveness of the state auditing system remains the subject of public debate, and the country lacks a freedom of information law.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
Several public and privately owned print and broadcast news outlets operate in Samoa, and internet access has expanded rapidly in recent years. While press freedom is generally respected, politicians and other powerful actors have used libel or defamation suits to respond to critical remarks or stories about them. In 2017, the parliament passed legislation that reintroduced criminal libel, which had been abolished in 2013. Artistic works are also subject to government restrictions; in 2019, the feature film Rocketman was banned for depicting same-sex sexual activity, which is illegal in Samoa.
In March 2021, the attorney general threatened an investigation of the Samoa Observer in response to its reporting on a possible conflict of interest involving her husband’s law firm.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and mostly respected in practice. However, a 2017 constitutional amendment shifted references to Samoa being a Christian nation from the constitution’s preamble to its body text, meaning it can potentially be used in legal action. There is strong societal pressure at the village level—including from village councils—to participate in the activities of the main local church.
In April and May 2020, the Samoan Law Society and the country’s ombudsman expressed concerns that provisions in three government-backed bills—the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, the Lands and Titles Court Bill 2020, and the Judicature Amendment Bill 2020—could limit religious freedom by removing the Land and Titles Court from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, meaning the latter could no longer review decisions on village customary matters that violated individual rights. The bills were subsequently passed in December 2020 and received the head of state’s assent in January 2021.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
There are no significant restrictions on academic freedom.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Most Samoans face no serious practical constraints on private discussion or the expression of personal views, though the threat of criminal defamation charges remains a problem for some prominent critics of the government or of powerful individuals.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and respected in practice. Beginning in March 2020, the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Demonstrators nevertheless continued to engage in protests, avoiding the health restrictions in part by organizing processions of vehicles. Among other demonstrations held during 2021, HRPP supporters repeatedly protested unfavorable court rulings during the postelection crisis.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, operate freely, though the civil society sector in Samoa remains relatively small and underfunded. For example, the country’s only NGO focused on sexual orientation and gender identity issues reported in 2021 that it received no direct government funding and had just one paid staff member.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Multiple unions exist, representing both public- and private-sector employees; these are often called “associations.” The Samoa Workers Congress (SWC) is an umbrella body for all workers’ unions.
Union members’ rights are governed by the constitution and the 2013 Labour and Employment Relations Act; the latter recognizes unions and employees’ roles and rights, the right to collective bargaining, and rights to maternity and paternity leave, and mandates the establishment of a National Tripartite Forum, which provides for workers’ benefits and consults on employment policies and conditions. However, some cultural factors hinder the ability of workers and unions to pursue their rights.
Samoa has ratified the International Labour Organization’s eight fundamental conventions.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is independent, as demonstrated by its rulings during the postelection crisis in 2021. The head of state, on the recommendation of the prime minister, appoints the chief justice. Other Supreme Court judges are appointed by the head of state on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, which is chaired by the chief justice and includes the attorney general and a Justice Ministry appointee. Judges typically serve until they reach retirement age and cannot be removed arbitrarily.
The three reform bills adopted in December 2020 featured a number of provisions that could undermine judicial independence and the rule of law. One component would allow the head of state, on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, to dismiss Supreme Court judges; this had previously required a two-thirds vote in the parliament, which is still required to remove the chief justice. The legislation also separates the judicial system into two distinct and potentially conflicting structures, with one, headed by the Supreme Court, handling civil and criminal matters and the other, the Land and Titles Court, overseeing customary matters including communal land. The Land and Titles Court would have its own appellate body, and individuals would no longer be able to appeal its decisions to the Supreme Court.
In December 2021, the head of the Land and Titles Court appointed Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, who had recently resigned as electoral commissioner, to serve as deputy president of the court. The justice minister challenged the legality of the appointment, citing ambiguities in the new 2020 law governing the court, and the matter remained unresolved at year’s end.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
The authorities generally observe due process safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, and the courts provide defendants with the conditions necessary for a fair trial. However, village councils settle many disputes, and their adherence to due process standards varies; they have the authority to impose penalties including fines and banishment. The December 2020 legal reforms appeared to eliminate individuals’ ability to appeal village council decisions to the Supreme Court, raising doubts about how conflicts between customary communal authority and the constitutional rights of individuals would be resolved.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
Violent crime rates are relatively low. Police officers are occasionally accused of physical abuse. Prisons lack adequate resources, resulting in poor conditions including overcrowding, as well as breakdowns in security.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on descent, sex, religion, and other categories. The Labour and Employment Relations Act also prohibits discrimination against employees on such grounds as ethnicity, race, color, sex, gender, religion, political opinion, sexual orientation, social origin, marital status, pregnancy, HIV status, and disability. However, these protections are enforced unevenly. In practice women face some discrimination in employment and other aspects of life, and same-sex sexual activity remains a criminal offense for men. Ethnic Chinese residents at times encounter societal bias and restrictions on the location of their businesses.
Fa‘afafine were previously subject to a rarely enforced criminal code provision that prohibited the “impersonation” of a woman. A 2013 amendment removed that provision, but fa‘afafine and other gender-diverse Samoans continue to face a degree of societal discrimination in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
While there are few constraints on freedom of movement, village councils still occasionally banish individuals from their communities as a penalty for serious violations of their bylaws.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Private business activity is encouraged, and property rights are generally protected, though roughly 80 percent of the country’s land is communally owned, meaning it is overseen by matai titleholders and other village leaders. The rest consists of freehold and state-owned land.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
While personal social freedoms are generally not restricted by law, domestic violence against women and children is a serious problem. The Crimes Act of 2013 made spousal rape a crime, and the Family Safety Act of 2013 empowers the police, public health officials, and educators to assist victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless, many victims do not report abuse due to strong social biases and fear of reprisal.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals generally enjoy equality of opportunity and fair working conditions. However, most adults engage in subsistence agriculture, and local custom obliges residents to perform some labor on behalf of the community; those who fail to do so can be compelled.
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