Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Samoa has a largely democratic political system with regular elections, though the same political party has been in government for decades, and only traditional heads of families can run as candidates. The judiciary is independent, and civil liberties are generally respected.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In July, the parliament elected Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II to serve a five-year term as the ceremonial head of state.
- The 72-year-old prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, spent more than two weeks in New Zealand for medical treatment in October, spurring discussion about succession plans.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 30 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 9 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The parliament elects a ceremonial head of state to serve five-year terms; there are no term limits. By custom rather than constitutional requirement, the position is given to one of the country’s four paramount chiefs. In July 2017, the parliament elected Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II as head of state.
The head of government is the prime minister, who requires the parliament’s support. Prime Minister Tuilaepa of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in office since 1998, having been reelected most recently in 2016. His medical visit to New Zealand for much of October 2017 reportedly led some HRPP figures to begin quietly jockeying for position as possible successors.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The Legislative Assembly, or Fono, consists of 47 members elected in traditional village-based constituencies and 2 members elected by voters in “urban” constituencies—including citizens of mixed or non-Samoan heritage who lack village ties. Additional members can be added from among the unsuccessful candidates with the most votes in order to meet a minimum 10 percent quota of women members. All lawmakers serve five-year terms.
In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the HRPP won 35 of the 50 seats; one seat was added to meet the gender quota. Independents took 13 and the opposition Tautua Samoa Party (TSP) was left with just two. After the elections, 12 of the independents joined the HRPP, and the 13th joined the opposition.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
The constitutional and legal framework for elections is largely democratic and fairly implemented. However, only citizens with matai status (chiefs or family heads) are allowed to stand as candidates. There are some 17,000 matai, but only about 10 percent are women. A 2015 amendment to the Electoral Act replaced two at-large parliament seats representing voters of non-Samoan heritage with two “urban” constituencies with defined boundaries, though they still overlapped with territorial constituencies and pertained to voters who either lacked or chose not to register according to traditional village ties.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 12 / 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? 3 / 4
There are no major constraints on the formation and operation of political parties, but parties must win a minimum of eight seats to qualify for formal recognition within the legislature. The TSP, which fell from 13 seats to just three after the 2016 elections, lost this status, leading opposition members to criticize the rule for producing a “one-party state.”
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
The ruling HRPP has been in power without interruption since the 1980s, raising concerns about whether this is due to the party’s popularity or features of the electoral system that may put the opposition at a disadvantage.
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
While voters and candidates are largely free from undue interference with their political choices, traditional village councils consisting of local leaders with matai titles exercise considerable influence through candidate endorsements. Those who use the electoral laws to challenge the councils’ preferred candidates in court have sometimes faced customary penalties such as banishment.
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 ethnic minorities have full voting rights, but the fact that candidates must be matai title holders means few women can run for office. The 2016 elections marked the first application of the gender quota ensuring that at least five seats in the parliament are held by women. If fewer than that number are elected in normal constituency contests, the unsuccessful women candidates with the most votes are awarded additional seats. One extra seat was consequently added to the 2016 parliament. Few women participate in village council meetings.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
The prime minister and cabinet determine and implement government policies without improper interference by outside groups, but the weak opposition presence in the parliament undermines its role as a check on the executive, and the democratic credentials of the government are tarnished somewhat by restrictive features of the electoral system.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Independent entities including the ombudsman’s office, the Public Service Commission, and law enforcement agencies pursue allegations of corruption by public officials. However, corruption remains a problem and a cause of public discontent, and the government has at times resisted calls for a stronger response. In August 2017, the minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries resigned to face corruption charges related to his role as a director for a juice company.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
The government generally operates with transparency and received praise from the International Monetary Fund in 2017 for its efforts to make statistical data more accessible online. The effectiveness of the state auditing system was the subject of public debate during the year. The country lacks a freedom of information law, though a legal reform commission was reportedly considering such a measure.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 50 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
While freedom of the press is generally respected, politicians and other powerful actors have used libel or defamation suits to respond to remarks or stories about them. In December 2017, the parliament passed legislation that reintroduced criminal libel, which had been abolished in 2013. Also during the year, police were accused of infringing on press freedom by executing a search warrant at a newspaper over a harassment complaint.
There are several public and privately owned print and broadcast news outlets in operation, and internet access has expanded rapidly in recent years.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Freedom of religion is mostly respected in practice. However, in June 2017 the parliament passed constitutional amendments that declared the country to be a “Christian nation,” and there is strong societal pressure at the village level—including from village councils—to participate in the activities of the main local church.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
There are no significant restrictions on academic freedom.
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 serious constraints on private discussion or the expression of personal views.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and respected in practice.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate freely.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Multiple unions exist, representing both public and private-sector employees.
F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judiciary is independent. The head of state, on the recommendation of the prime minister, appoints the chief justice. Other Supreme Court judges are appointed by the Judicial Service Commission, which is chaired by the chief justice and includes the attorney general and a Justice Ministry appointee. Judges typically serve until they reach retirement age and cannot be removed arbitrarily.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
The authorities generally observe due process safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, and the courts provide defendants with the conditions necessary for a fair trial. However, village councils settle many disputes, and their adherence to due process standards varies. They have the authority to impose penalties including fines and banishment, though council decisions can be appealed in the court system.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Violent crime rates are relatively low. Police officers are occasionally accused of physical abuse, and prison conditions are poor. A new prison under construction during 2017 was expected to relieve overcrowding and other problems.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on descent, sex, religion, and other categories, but in practice women face some discrimination in employment and other aspects of life. Although the law offers protections against employment discrimination and hate crimes based on sexual orientation, same-sex sexual activity remains a criminal offense. Ethnic Chinese residents at times encounter societal bias and restrictions on the location of their businesses.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 12 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
While there are few constraints on freedom of movement, village councils still occasionally banish individuals from their communities as a penalty for serious violations of their bylaws.
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
Private business activity is encouraged, and property rights are generally protected, though roughly 80 percent of the country’s land is communally owned, meaning it is overseen by matai title holders and other village leaders. The rest consists of freehold and state-owned land.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
While personal social freedoms are generally not restricted by law, domestic violence against women and children is a serious problem. The Crimes Act of 2013 made spousal rape a crime, and the Family Safety Act of 2013 empowers the police, public health officials, and educators to assist victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless, many victims do not report abuse due to strong social biases and fear of reprisal.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Individuals generally enjoy equality of opportunity and fair working conditions. However, most adults engage in subsistence agriculture, and local custom obliges residents to perform some labor on behalf of the community; those who fail to do so can be compelled.