São Tomé and Príncipe holds regular, competitive national elections and has undergone multiple transfers of power between rival parties. Civil liberties are generally respected, but poverty and corruption have weakened some institutions and contributed to dysfunction in the justice system. Threats to judicial independence have been a growing concern in recent years.
- A long-running legal battle over ownership of the Rosema Brewery, one of the country’s largest enterprises, continued to prompt political interference in the judiciary during the year, with the National Assembly authorizing the dismissal of three Constitutional Court judges in August.
- The government of former prime minister Patrice Trovoada, in power through late 2018, was accused in August of hiding more than $70 million in debt.
- Trovoada’s Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party, now in opposition, chose a new leader at a party congress in May. In September, Trovoada was elected president of an ADI splinter faction.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president is directly elected for up to two consecutive five-year terms. The prime minister, who holds most day-to-day executive authority, is appointed by the president based on the results of legislative elections. Executive elections are typically considered free and fair.
In the 2016 presidential election, Evaristo Carvalho, a former prime minister and member of the ADI party, led the first round with just under 50 percent of the vote; he was initially credited with over 50 percent, but the National Electoral Commission (CEN) revised the total downward, citing late results from certain areas. Carvalho’s leading opponent, incumbent president and independent Manuel Pinto da Costa, was credited with nearly 25 percent, but he boycotted the runoff vote, alleging irregularities in the first round. Carvalho was consequently elected unopposed. Despite this dispute, African Union observers generally praised the conduct of the election.
In the October 2018 legislative elections, the ADI, the party of incumbent prime minister Patrice Trovoada, won the most seats, but it failed to form a government. In November 2018, President Carvalho invited the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe–Social Democratic Party (MLSTP-PSD), under the leadership of Jorge Bom Jesus, and a bloc consisting of the Democratic Convergence Party, the Union of Democrats for Citizenship and Development, and the Force for Democratic Change Movement (PCD-UDD-MDFM), to form a new coalition government. Jesus was appointed prime minister later that month.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Members of the unicameral, 55-seat National Assembly are elected by popular vote to four-year terms. In the October 2018 legislative elections, the ADI secured 25 seats, followed by the MLSTP-PSD with 23, the PCD-UDD-MDFM with 5, and the Movement of Independent Citizens with 2. Following the elections, in a bid to secure an absolute majority, Trovoada requested that the Constitutional Court order a recount of ballots that had been ruled invalid, which the court agreed to. The opposition condemned the court’s decision as biased in favor of the ADI, and demonstrations held outside the site of the recount were violently dispersed by security forces, who fired tear gas into the crowd. However, later in October 2018, the Constitutional Court certified the initial election results, and the ADI did not gain any seats. Despite the controversy, international observers deemed the elections largely credible.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The electoral laws and framework are generally fair, but implementation suffers from lack of resources and staff. Municipal elections and elections in the autonomous region of Príncipe, which had been scheduled for 2017 but delayed due to funding shortages, were held concurrently with the parliamentary elections in 2018.
In 2017, the ADI parliamentary majority adopted legislation that would have reorganized the composition of the CEN in a manner that the opposition claimed would allow the ADI to manipulate future elections. In March 2018, however, the ADI government chose to maintain the CEN’s structure, negating the legislation.
|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|
The multiparty system features free and vigorous competition among the ADI, MLSTP-PSD, PCD-UDD-MDFM, and a variety of other parties. The ADI suffered a fracture during 2019, with delegates choosing a new leader to replace former prime minister Trovoada at a party congress in May, and Trovoada securing election as leader of a splinter faction in September.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Manuel Pinto da Costa and the MLSTP-PSD ruled São Tomé and Príncipe as a one-party state from independence in 1975 until 1991. Since then there have been multiple democratic transfers of power between rival parties. Individual governments have tended to be short-lived, partly due to the country’s system of proportional representation, which encourages coalition or minority governments. At the time of its electoral defeat in 2018, the ADI had been in government for four years.
|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|
Voters and politicians are generally free from undue interference with their decisions. The practice of vote buying by political parties and candidates remains a problem, but was reportedly less prevalent during the 2018 elections. While the country experienced military coups in 1995 and 2003, normal civilian rule was swiftly restored in both cases.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Women and minority groups enjoy full political rights. While societal discrimination and disparities in access to education inhibit women’s participation to some degree, women have made gradual advances in the political sphere. Maria das Neves of the MLSTP-PSD, the country’s first woman prime minister from 2002 to 2004, placed third in the 2016 presidential election. Women won 10 out of 55 seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections, up from 5 a decade earlier.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to increased political participation by women over the last decade.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The prime minster and cabinet determine the policies of the government, under the supervision of the National Assembly and the president. They are able to implement laws and policies without improper interference from unelected entities.
The president and the prime minister, aligned with rival political blocs, clashed over their respective powers during 2019. In January, the Jesus government appointed a senior MLSTP-PSD party official as the new governor of the central bank, drawing objections from President Carvalho, who accused the government of infringing on his constitutional authority by dismissing the bank’s former leadership.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Corruption is a major problem. Oversight mechanisms, the opposition, and the media have repeatedly uncovered evidence of official malfeasance, sometimes resulting in dismissals and other repercussions, but on the whole, anticorruption laws are poorly enforced. The Jesus government announced that fighting corruption would be a priority, and a number of former officials faced accusations of malfeasance during 2019. Américo Ramos, the previous government’s finance minister, was arrested in April on charges that included corruption and embezzlement, but the charges were dropped in July. The new government in December 2018 had also replaced the directors of public companies who had been nominated by the ADI, and inquiries into their actions were underway in 2019.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
The government generally does not restrict access to information about its operations. However, there is no specific law guaranteeing public access to government information. Officials rarely disclose their assets and income. The prime minister in February 2019 decided to disclose the amounts he had spent on travel abroad, returning unspent funds from his subsidy, in what was apparently the first such action by the government. In August, the government pledged to guarantee funding for the Court of Auditors and support its efforts to combat mismanagement of public resources. Also that month, the prime minister accused the former government of accumulating more than $70 million in hidden debt.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed and largely respected in practice. Public media convey opposition views and grant some access to opposition leaders, but only a handful of private media outlets are available, and a degree of self-censorship is reported at both public and private outlets. There are no restrictions on online media, though the sector is poorly developed. About a third of the population has internet access.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Religious groups are required to register with the Justice Ministry and can face penalties for failure to do so, but the process is not reported to be biased or restrictive.
In October 2019, lawmakers threatened to expel the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God from the country if it did not resolve the situation of a São Toméan pastor who had been arrested in Côte d’Ivoire for defamation against the church. Violent protests took place that month at the church’s São Toméan headquarters. The pastor was subsequently released and returned to São Tomé and Príncipe in December.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution prohibits political indoctrination in education, and academic freedom is generally respected in practice.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are no restrictions on individuals’ freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the constitution. The government is not known to engage in improper surveillance of personal communications or monitoring of online content.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of assembly, which the government generally observes in practice. However, organizers are obliged to give authorities two days’ notice before public gatherings. During the protests against the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in October 2019, some demonstrators attacked church buildings, and one person was reportedly killed by police gunfire.
|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 organizations that focus on human rights and governance issues, are free to operate. The government has not placed any significant restrictions on NGOs in recent years, but a lack of funding limits their activities.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers have the legal rights to organize, strike, and bargain collectively, and these are mostly respected, though there are no provisions to regulate bargaining or punish antiunion practices by employers. Most union negotiations are conducted with the government, which remains the country’s dominant formal-sector employer.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the courts are relatively autonomous in practice, but they are susceptible to political influence and corruption.
A series of politically charged appointments and dismissals of Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges that began under the ADI government in 2018 continued during 2019. In February, the National Assembly installed five new Constitutional Court judges to replace those originally appointed by the ADI, whom the new governing coalition had dismissed in late 2018. In May, weeks after a lower court returned ownership of the Rosema Brewery—one of the country’s largest companies—to an Angolan businessman, the Constitutional Court reversed the judgment, ruling in favor of two local politicians and businessmen. The governing coalition, which was seeking greater Angolan investment in São Tomé and Príncipe, then authorized the removal of the three Constitutional Court judges who had voted to restore the company to its local owners, and approved new appointees to replace them with a National Assembly vote in August.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Law enforcement authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention as well as guarantees for a fair trial, but police corruption is a problem, and indigent defendants are sometimes denied access to a lawyer. Nearly a third of prisoners are in pretrial detention, which can be lengthy in some cases.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Police are sometimes accused of beating suspects during arrest; a man was beaten to death in custody in 2018, drawing widespread condemnation. Prisons suffer from overcrowding and other harsh conditions. However, the country is otherwise free of major threats to physical security.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Equal treatment is guaranteed by law, but a degree of societal discrimination against women persists, hampering their access to economic and educational opportunities. Although same-sex sexual activity is not criminalized, discrimination against LGBT+ people is sometimes reported, and the law does not specifically address such bias.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution establishes the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government has generally respected these rights.
|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|
The legal framework and government policies are generally supportive of property rights and private business activity, though bureaucratic obstacles and corruption pose challenges in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
There are few formal restrictions on personal social freedoms. However, domestic violence is reportedly common and rarely prosecuted. The minimum age for marriage with parental consent is 14 for girls and 16 for boys, as opposed to 18 without parental consent for both. Roughly a third of girls marry before age 18.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Forced labor is prohibited and child labor is restricted by law. There are also basic legal protections against exploitative or dangerous working conditions. However, the government lacks the capacity to enforce these rules effectively, particularly in the informal agricultural sector.
The economy depends in large part on foreign aid, and the government has sought assistance from a variety of sources.
On São Tomé and Príncipe
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Global Freedom Score84 100 free