Freedom in the World
You are here
São Tomé and Príncipe
Freedom in the World Scores
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. The opposition has accused the ruling party of using its control over the presidency and a strong parliamentary majority to consolidate power.
Key Developments in 2017:
- China formally opened its embassy in the country in April, after São Tomé switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in December 2016. Beijing promised an increase in development aid and investment.
- In August, President Evaristo Carvalho announced that elections for municipalities and for the regional government of Príncipe, which should have taken place in 2017, would be postponed to 2018 due to a lack of funds.
- Also in August, the parliament adopted legislation that reorganized the electoral commission over the objections of the opposition, which argued that it could enable the ruling party to manipulate future balloting.
- In December, the president promulgated legislation to create a new Constitutional Court despite a pending review of the measure by the Supreme Court, which attempted to block the promulgation. The dispute was unresolved at year’s end.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 34 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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 July 2016 presidential election, Carvalho, a former prime minister and member of the ruling Independent Democratic Action (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 August 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.
Patrice Trovoada has served as prime minister since 2014, when he was appointed following ADI’s victory in that year’s legislative elections.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Members of the unicameral, 55-seat National Assembly are elected by popular vote to four-year terms. In the 2014 elections, ADI secured 33 seats, followed by the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe–Social Democratic Party (MLSTP-PSD) with 16 seats, the Democratic Convergence Party–Reflection Group (PCD-GR) with 5, and the Union of Democrats for Citizenship and Development (UDD) with 1. International observers deemed the elections largely free and fair.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
The electoral laws and framework are generally fair, but implementation suffers from a lack of resources and staff. Elections at the municipal level and in the autonomous region of Príncipe, last held in 2014, were due in 2017, but the president announced in August that they would be postponed to 2018, citing insufficient funds. The elections had been similarly postponed from 2013 to 2014.
Also in August, the ADI parliamentary majority adopted legislation that reorganized the CEN. While the previous commissions had nine members, including representatives of all parliamentary parties, serving four-year terms, the new body would have three members, with two nominated by the largest party and one by the second-largest party, serving seven-year terms. The opposition criticized the changes, saying they could allow the ADI to manipulate future elections.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
The multiparty system features free and vigorous competition between ADI, MLSTP-PSD, PCD-GR, and a variety of other parties.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
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.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
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 it is reported to be waning over time and was never considered a decisive factor in elections. While the country experienced military coups in 1995 and 2003, normal civilian rule was swiftly restored in both cases.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Women and minority groups enjoy full political rights, though societal discrimination inhibits women’s participation to some degree. 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 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
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.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
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.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
The government generally does not restrict access to information about its operations, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative has reported that authorities are making progress on implementing its recommendations as the country engages in offshore oil exploration. However, there is no specific law guaranteeing public access to government information, and officials rarely disclose their assets and income.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 48 / 60 (+1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
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. Less than a third of the population has internet access.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
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.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
The constitution prohibits political indoctrination in education, and academic freedom is generally respected in practice.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
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.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
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.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights and governance-related work? 3 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are free to operate, and they often work with the government to address issues such as child labor and provide basic services. Nevertheless, the sector is relatively small, and NGO independence and activities are limited by a lack of funding.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Worker 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. Workers in the judicial system mounted a strike from March to June 2017, ending the action after they secured an agreement on pay and working conditions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 12 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
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 system is also understaffed and underfunded.
In December 2017, the president promulgated legislation adopted in August that would create a separate Constitutional Court, as called for in the constitution. It would have ultimate authority over election results, and its members would be appointed by a simple parliamentary majority if an initial vote failed to reach a two-thirds majority. Opposition parties criticized the measure as undemocratic, noting that it had been promulgated while still under review by the Supreme Court, which has performed constitutional review functions in the absence of a separate tribunal. The Supreme Court ruled that the promulgation was null pending its verdict on the law, but the president claimed that the court could no longer act in its former capacity under the new legislation. The dispute had yet to be resolved at year’s end.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
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 there were reports in 2017 that indigent defendants were denied access to a lawyer. The country’s bar association said in October that the state had failed to provide funding for such defense attorneys.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Police are sometimes accused of beating suspects during arrest, and prisons suffer from overcrowding and other harsh conditions. The country is relatively free of major violence or unrest. However, Rwandan troops arrived in May 2017 with a mission to train and advise local security forces amid growing ties between the two countries, and the opposition alleged that their presence was part of the government’s antidemocratic agenda.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
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 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people is sometimes reported, and the law does not specifically address such bias.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 11 / 16 (+1)
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4 (+1)
The constitution establishes the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government has generally respected these rights.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no recent reports of restrictions on the constitutional right to travel and relocate within the country or abroad.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
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.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
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.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
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. São Tomé and Príncipe switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in late 2016 amid pledges of increased aid and investment from Beijing, and a Chinese embassy was opened in April 2017.