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Located in the South Pacific midway between Hawaii and New Zealand, Samoa consists of two main islands--Upolo (home to nearly three-quarters of the population) and Savai'i--and seven smaller ones. They make up the westernmost islands of the Polynesian island group, which was divided up by colonial powers in 1899. The western islands became a German protectorate, while the eastern islands became a U.S. territory, known today as American Samoa. The westerly Samoan islands came under New Zealand's control in 1920 under a League of Nations mandate, and gained independence in 1962 as Western Samoa, known today simply as Samoa.
Samoan politics have been dominated since 1982 by the centrist Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which has won the most seats in six straight elections. Under Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana, who took power after the 1982 elections, economic output per capita expanded and voting rights were extended to all Samoans. Previously, only Samoa's traditional chiefs could vote. The current prime minister, Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi, came to office in 1998 after Tofilau resigned for health reasons.
The HRPP formed the current government after winning 22 of parliament's 49 seats in Samoa's latest elections, on March 2, 2001. After two weeks of intense politicking by all sides to cobble together a parliamentary majority, the HRPP picked up the support of six independents to gain control of the legislature. An independent lawmaker, Asiata Saleimoa Vaai, became the new opposition leader after mounting an unsuccessful bid to form a government. He took over from longtime opposition head Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi of the main opposition Samoa National Development Party (SNDP). The conservative SNDP won 13 seats in the election, while independents took most of the remaining 14 seats.
Corruption allegations have dogged successive HRPP governments. The country's chief auditor implicated half of the cabinet for corrupt practices in 1994. Then-prime minister Tofilau's only real response was to issue a public rebuke to his ministers. Samoa's first assassination since independence, of public works minister Luagalau Levaula Kamu in 1999, allegedly was linked to the minister's anticorruption efforts.
The economy depends heavily on tourism, foreign aid, agricultural exports, and money sent home by the more than 100,000 Samoans working abroad. Deputy Prime Minister Misa Telefoni said in December that economic output grew by roughly 1 percent in 2002, down from 8 percent in 2001. More than 60 percent of Samoans work in agriculture.
Like several other poor Pacific island countries that turned to offshore finance as a way to raise revenue, Samoa has been threatened with unspecified sanctions by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for allegedly acting as a tax haven.
Samoans can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. Elections are generally free and fair, although the Supreme Court ordered by-elections in four districts in 2001 in response to allegations of bribery and abuse of the electoral rolls in connection with that year's parliamentary vote.
Samoa's 1960 constitution created a government that combines British-style parliamentary democracy with local customs. The legislature has 49 members--35 elected from single-seat districts and 12 elected from 6 2-seat districts, all by ethnic Samoans, and 2 who are chosen at large by non-Samoans. All serve five-year terms. Any Samoan over the age of 21 can vote, but only the 25,000 traditional chiefs can run for the Samoan seats. Prior to 1991, only the chiefs, known as matai, could vote. Chiefs attain their status by family agreement, and a chief generally must win approval from the high chiefs of the village in order to run for office.
Samoa's highest chief, Malietoa Tanumafili II, is head of state for life, though his successor will be chosen by the legislature for a five-year term. His approval is needed for laws passed by parliament to take effect.
The common law judiciary is independent, and Samoans generally receive fair trials, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Many civil and criminal disputes beyond Apia, the capital, are handled outside of the court system. They are settled by councils of chiefs, called fonos, which govern individual villages. Fonos generally punish those found guilty by fining them, or, in rare cases, banishing them from their village, an extremely harsh penalty in this highly traditional society.
Several recent fono punishments have been controversial. The Afega village fono in 2001 banished 10 people, and their families, for giving evidence in a bribery case, although the Supreme Court overturned the order. Also that year, the Falealupo village fono barred a former speaker of parliament, Aeau Peniamina Leavai, and his family from entering their village, reportedly because he ran for parliament without permission.
The 1990 Village Fono Act gave fono decisions legal standing, but allowed some to be appealed to civil courts. However, court rulings overturning banishment orders are often ignored, Agence France-Presse reported in 2001.
The church is highly influential in Samoan society, and fonos have banished or otherwise punished villagers for not following the dominant Christian denomination of their villages, according to the U.S. State Department report. Chiefs generally choose the denomination of their extended families in this mainly Christian society. Fonos justify punishing villagers who refuse to follow this orthodoxy on the grounds of maintaining social harmony. In a ruling that seemed to reign in the power of village chiefs, the Supreme Court in 2000 ordered Saipipi village to take back 32 people who had been banished for following a religion different from that favored by the chiefs. Samoans also face strong societal pressure to provide financial support to church leaders and projects.
Traditional customs afford Samoans little privacy protection in their villages. While the law requires village officials to have permission to enter homes, in practice Samoans at times face strong social pressure to grant such consent, the U.S. State Department report said.
Samoa's press is generally free. In a gain for press freedom, the Supreme Court in 2000 overturned a 1997 ban that prevented state radio and television services from covering the opposition leader. Two English-language newspapers and several Samoan-language papers appear regularly. The government runs the sole domestic television station, although a private satellite cable system serves parts of Apia, and Samoans can easily tune in to television broadcasts from nearby American Samoa. Radio is both public and private.
Women generally play subordinate roles in this conservative society, although the 1,000 or more female chiefs wield considerable influence. Only three women won parliamentary seats in 2001, in part because only chiefs can run for the Samoan seats and only around 5 percent of chiefs are women.
Physical abuse of women in the home is illegal, but is socially tolerated and common, according to the U.S. State Department report. Men who abuse their wives are typically punished, if at all, by village fonos, which generally hand down punishments only if the victims bear physical signs of abuse. Police typically get involved in domestic violence cases only if the victim files a complaint, which social norms discourage, the report said. Like domestic violence victims, many rape victims apparently do not report being assaulted, although the increasing number of reported cases that are reported are treated seriously.
Some 20 percent of Samoan workers belong to one of the country's two trade unions. Both are independent, although their relatively inexperienced leaders generally do not bargain collectively on behalf of union members. The union-like Public Service Association represents state workers and bargains collectively. Several governmental education programs address job safety, although observers say that actual enforcement of workplace safety laws is lax.