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.
- Opposition leader and former prime minister Tuila‘epa Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi and the secretary of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi were suspended indefinitely from Parliament in May for breaching parliamentary privileges. Though the suspension was declared void by the Supreme Court in August, Parliament reimposed their suspensions, for two years, in October on the same grounds.
- In November, Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa announced the appointment of a new Lands and Titles Court president, Lesatele Rapi Vaai, who was formerly a Supreme Court justice. Fepuleai Attiila Ropati, who was replaced as court president by Vaai, filed a legal challenge with the Supreme Court, claiming that he had been unduly removed without following proper protocols. The dispute had not been resolved by year’s end.
|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 August 2022, parliament elected Tuimaleali‘ifano Va‘aletoa Sualauvi II for a second term as head of state.
The head of government is the prime minister, who must have the parliament’s support. In July 2021, following parliamentary elections, Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa, of the Fa‘atuatua I le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST), began work as prime minister after the courts resolved a lengthy dispute over the legality of her swearing-in ceremony outside the parliament months earlier.
|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 women candidates are declared elected until the required quota is reached. Elections are held every five years.
In the 2021 elections, the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (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 2021. The new parliament was ordered to sit that month to select a new government. 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 2021.
FAST made further gains in November 2021 by-elections, solidifying its governing majority. After the by-elections, two additional women parliamentarians were declared elected under Samoa’s minimum 10 percent gender quota. In May 2022, the Supreme Court ruled a third woman elected under that quota, bringing the total number of women in Parliament to seven (four of whom were elected by ordinary means). However, this last ruling was reversed on appeal in November, reducing the number of women in Parliament to six. Independent candidate Fo‘isala Lilo Tu‘u Ioane won a June 2022 by-election and subsequently joined the ruling FAST. At the end of 2022, due to internal party defections, FAST held 31 of the 53 seats.
|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 2 percent of matai titleholders are women. Candidates are also subject to residency and traditional village service requirements. All adult citizens over 21 years of age have the right to vote, which had previously been limited to matai before 1990.
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.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 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. The opposition leader and former HRPP prime minister, Tuila‘epa Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi, and the secretary of the HRPP, Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi, were suspended indefinitely from Parliament in May 2022 for contempt of court charges, but the suspension was declared void by the Supreme Court in August. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling, FAST used its majority in parliament in October to suspend them for two years, on the same grounds.
In March 2022, former prime minister Tuila‘epa and several of his HRPP colleagues were found guilty of contempt of court for their actions and statements in the aftermath of the 2021 general election, but no penalty was imposed.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to persistent efforts by the governing majority to suspend two leading opposition members of the parliament.
|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 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 women candidates with the most votes are awarded additional seats. One extra seat was consequently added to the 2016 parliament, two were added after the 2021 by-elections, and a third was added because of a Supreme Court ruling in May 2022, though this was reversed on appeal in November.
|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. 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 the constitutional crisis, were dismissed in September 2021, as was a top official at the Finance Ministry that August. An “open letter” that month from “affected and concerned public servants” criticized their treatment by the new government and was referred to the Public Service Commission.
The FAST government has been restricted in its ability to determine government policy owing to a two-thirds requirement for constitutional amendments. For example, the previous HRPP government passed three laws in December 2020 that greatly alter the legal standing of the Land and Titles Court and reduce the powers of the Supreme Court. Owing to the absence of a two-thirds majority, the FAST government has instead insisted that a procedural technicality allows for the law to be reconsidered, which they began to do in August 2022.
|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. Journalists report difficulties in getting information out of government, although government ministries often release “puff pieces.”
|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. 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. During the 2021 general elections campaign, journalists were banned from attending some gatherings in villages or districts.
In May 2022, Lagi Keresoma, the President of the Journalists Association of Western Samoa (JAWS), said that journalists face challenges because of “the belief that freedom of expression is not part of the Samoan culture,” especially in villages and districts.
|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. The current FAST government is opposed to those laws, but it does not have the two-thirds majority required to overturn them in the parliament.
|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 restricted 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?||4.004 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.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because NGOs are generally free to engage in human rights–related work.
|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 several provisions that could undermine judicial independence and the rule of law. One component allows 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.
The impasse over the legal status of the Land and Titles Court (LTC) has rendered that court unable to validate new judicial and administrative appointments. In February 2022, the president of the LTC sought Supreme Court intervention to validate the swearing-in of three of its judges. In April 2022, the Supreme Court granted the LTC president the ability to conduct affairrs, but left the ultimate resolution of the judges’ appointments to Parliament. In November, Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa announced the appointment of a new LTC president, Lesatele Rapi Vaai, who was formerly a Supremem Court justice. Fepuleai Attiila Ropati, who was replaced as court president by Vaai, filed a legal challenge with the Supreme Court, claiming that he had been unduly removed without following proper protocols.
|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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Global Freedom Score83 100 free