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.
- In November, the National Assembly passed legislation preventing citizens born and living abroad to run for president. The Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party criticized the legislation, saying it was designed to keep Gabon-born party leader Patrice Trovoada from seeking the post.
- COVID-19 cases were detected beginning in April, with transmission progressing through the year. The authorities reported 1,014 cases and 17 deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) by year’s end.
|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, former prime minister and ADI member Evaristo Carvalho 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. Carvalho’s leading opponent, incumbent president and independent Manuel Pinto da Costa, was credited with nearly 25 percent but boycotted the runoff vote, alleging first-round irregularities. 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 won the most seats, but failed to form a government. That November, 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, then prime minister 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. Demonstrations held outside the site of the recount were violently dispersed by security forces, who fired tear gas into the crowd. Later that month, 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.
In November 2020, the National Assembly approved a law preventing citizens born and living abroad to run for president. The ADI criticized it, claiming it was designed to keep Trovoada—who was named party leader the month before and was born in Gabon—from running for president. Also in November, parliamentarians selected new CEN commissioners who will supervise the 2021 presidential election along with a new Constitutional Court judge; the judge succeeded Edite dos Ramos Tem Juá, who was made foreign minister in September.
|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. Parties are known to fracture, however; in 2019, Trovoada was named leader of the ADI while a splinter faction backed Agostinho Fernandes. Trovoada was named ADI leader by acclamation in October 2020.
|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.
|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, though it 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, racial, 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 women have made advances in the political sphere, societal discrimination and disparities in access to education inhibit women’s participation. Women hold 24 percent of the parliament’s seats.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The prime minister and cabinet determine the government policy under the supervision of the National Assembly and the president. They implement laws and policies without improper interference from unelected entities.
|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 anticorruption laws are poorly enforced.
In June 2020, the Transparency Observatory claimed that the acquisition of face masks was marred by conflicts of interest among government officials. In September, the cabinet sought to “withdraw its confidence” in Attorney General Kelve Nobre de Carvalho over issues including the disappearance of drugs from Judicial Police premises.
|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. In August 2020, the Court of Auditors warned of irregularities in the government’s 2017 accounts, noting their inability to verify figures related to government debt among other concerns.
|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. Some 30 percent 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 failing to do so, but the process is not reported to be biased or restrictive.
|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. However, the quality of education is considered poor. In-person education was suspended during the 2019–20 academic year due to COVID-19, with students relying on remote learning and educational broadcasts. In-person education resumed in September 2020.
|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 freedom of expression, which is constitutionally guaranteed. The government is not known to engage in improper surveillance of personal communications or monitoring of online content. Social media is used to express private and political opinions.
|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.
While COVID-19-related restrictions on public assembly were imposed, several demonstrations were nevertheless held during the year. In September, health workers at Central Hospital held a demonstration after a colleague was killed.
|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. 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. In December 2020, employees of the finance and planning ministry held a brief strike over pay and working conditions.
|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. The current and previous governments embarked on a series of politically charged judicial appointments and dismissals.
In December 2020, the government launched a three-year modernization program for the justice system. The program is designed, in part, to bolster judicial and prosecutorial independence.
|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 physically attacking suspects during arrest.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding and other harsh conditions. In June 2020, the UN Development Programme launched a project to improve conditions in São Tomé Prison.
Health workers reportedly faced increased physical attacks and other acts of aggression during the year.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Equal treatment is legally guaranteed, 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 generally respects these rights, though movement was restricted by COVID-19-related measures during the year.
|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. In October 2020, several NGOs called on the government to declare a national day of prevention in order to combat sexual violence.
|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 is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
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Global Freedom Score84 100 free