Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegoi and his ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) managed to retain political power after elections held in March 2001. However, allegations of corruption and mismanagement have somewhat eroded the party's support.
The country consists of two volcanic islands and several minor islets located west of American Samoa in the south central Pacific. In 1899, the United States annexed Eastern (American) Samoa, while the Western Samoan islands became a German protectorate. New Zealand occupied Western Samoa during World War II and acquired subsequent control of the territory under first a League of Nations and later a United Nations mandate. A new constitution was adopted in 1960, and on January 1, 1962, Western Samoa became the first Pacific Island state to gain independence.
The ruling HRPP has won a plurality in all five elections since 1982. At the first direct elections in 1991, Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana won a third term after the HRPP secured 30 of the 49 parliamentary seats. Under Tofilau's leadership, Samoa experienced an extended period of economic growth, and he expanded democracy by extending voting rights from only the matai (family chiefs) to other citizens. However, corruption was widespread. In 1994, the country's chief auditor found half of the cabinet guilty of corrupt practices, but Tofilau only issued a public rebuke. Tofilau, ill with cancer, resigned in November 1998 after 16 years as prime minister and was replaced by Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegoi, who had served as deputy prime minister and finance minister. In July 1998, Western Samoa formally changed its name to Samoa.
In July 1999, Luagalau Levaula Kamu, the public works minister, was assassinated in the first political killing since the islands gained independence. The murder was allegedly linked to Levaula's determination to stamp out corruption under the new administration of Prime Minister Tuilaepa. However, the government continued to combat corruption and in 2000 had to answer to allegations of money laundering activities. Attempts at economic diversification have led to an expanded offshore banking sector, as well as growth in light manufacturing and tourism.
Samoa held parliamentary elections on March 2, 2001. In a closely contested race, the HRPP failed to maintain its majority, although it emerged as the single biggest party with 23 out of 49 seats (the opposition Samoa National Development Party won 13 seats, with the remainder being won by independent candidates). When the parliament was reconvened in mid-March to choose a speaker of the house, the HRPP was able to form a new government with the support of several independent lawmakers. In one village, a local businessman was exiled after he ran for parliament against the wishes of the ruling chiefs.
In August, three members of the government were charged with bribery after allegations surfaced that they had provided gifts and hospitality with the expectation of receiving political favors, a widespread custom that had been made illegal during election campaigns.
Samoans can change their government democratically. The 1960 constitution combines parliamentary democracy with traditional authority. The unicameral parliament has 49 seats, of which two are reserved for citizens of non-Samoan descent. In a 1990 referendum, voters narrowly approved universal suffrage and increased the parliament's term from three to five years. However, the right to stand for election remains confined to the 25,000 matai, 95 percent of whom are men. The head of state is traditionally drawn from the four paramount chiefs and has the duty to appoint the prime minister and approve legislation. Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II is the head of state for life, but his successors will be elected by parliament for five-year terms. In rural areas, the government has limited influence, and the 360 village councils, or fonos, are the main authorities. Several political parties exist, but the political process is defined more by individual personalities and village loyalties than by strict party affiliation. A new law requires formally recognized parties to register at least 100 members.
The judiciary is independent, and defendants receive fair trials. However, many civil and criminal matters are handled by village fonos according to traditional law. The 1990 Village Fono Act provides some right of appeal in such cases to the Lands and Titles Courts and to the Supreme Court. Village fonos occasionally order houses burned, persons banned from villages, and other harsh punishments. However, in July 2000 the Supreme Court ruled that the Village Fono Act should not be used to infringe upon villagers' freedoms of religion, speech, assembly or association. The police force is under civilian control, but its impact is limited mostly to the capital city, while fonos generally enforce security measures in the rest of the country.
The state-owned broadcast media consist of the country's only television station and two radio stations. Both are heavily government controlled and restrict air time for opposition leaders. The government has also, on occasion, suppressed press freedom in the private media, which consist of two private radio stations, a satellite television company, several Samoan-language newspapers, and two English-language newspapers. In 1998, Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana introduced a measure giving government ministers the power to use public funds to finance defamation suits. In this context, The Samoa Observer, an independent newspaper, faced several lawsuits brought by government officials and business leaders for stories it had published about public corruption and abuses of power. The government also withdrew all advertisements from the paper and threatened to cancel the paper's business license.
The church is a powerful force in Samoan society. The matai often choose the religious denomination of their extended family in this predominantly Christian country, and there is strong societal pressure to support church leaders and projects financially. Councils sometimes banish or punish families who do not adhere to the prevailing religious beliefs of the villages.
The government generally respects the right of assembly. There are two independent trade unions, plus the Public Service Association, which represents government workers. Strikes are legal, but infrequent. Collective bargaining is practiced mainly in the public sector.
Domestic violence is a serious problem. Traditional norms discourage women from going to the police or the courts for protection, and pro-active government measures are insufficient. Women are discriminated against in employment and underrepresented in politics; nevertheless, in the most recent elections, three women were elected to the parliament.