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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In the October parliamentary elections, the ruling Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party won the most seats, but failed to form a government. The Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe–Social Democratic Party (MLSTP-PSD) and a party coalition that includes the Democratic Convergence Party, the Union of Democrats for Citizenship and Development, and the Force for Democratic Change Movement (PCD-UDD-MDFM) successfully formed a government in October. Jorge Bom Jesus of the MLSTP-PSD was appointed prime minister.
- The creation of a new Constitutional Court with ultimate authority over election results, approved by the National Assembly in 2017, was a continued source of controversy in 2018. In January, the Supreme Court ruled that the new court was unconstitutional, but the government defied the ruling, and the National Assembly elected five judges to the Constitutional Court later in the month, in a vote that the opposition boycotted.
- The judicial crisis intensified further in May, when the National Assembly voted to dismiss three judges on the Supreme Court, including the court’s president, after some legislators accused the judges of issuing a politicized ruling regarding the ownership of Rosema Brewery. In July, four judges were elected by the ADI to replace the ousted judges, as well as a fourth judge who had resigned in protest.
- At the end of December, the National Assembly, now controlled by the MLSTP-PSD and PCD-UDD-MDFM, voted to reinstate the four Supreme Court judges who had been dismissed or resigned, and to remove the five judges who had been elected to the Constitutional Court by the ADI-controlled National Assembly.
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, Evaristo Carvalho, a former prime minister and member of the ruling 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.
In the October 2018 legislative elections, the ADI, the party of incumbent prime minister Patrice Trovoada, won the most seats, but failed to form a government. In November, President Carvalho invited the MLSTP-PSD, under the leadership of Jorge Bom Jesus, and the PCD-UDD-MDFM party coalition, to form a new government. Jesus was appointed prime minister later in November.
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 October 2018 legislative elections, the ADI secured 25 seats, followed by the MLSTP-PSD with 23, the coalition PCD-UDD-MDFM with 5, and the Movement of Independent Citizens with 2. Following the elections, in a bid to secure an absolute majority, 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, and demonstrations held outside the site of the recount were violently dispersed by security forces, who fired tear gas into the crowd. However, later in October, 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.
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 lack of resources and staff. Municipal elections and elections in the autonomous region of Príncipe, which had been scheduled for 2017 but delayed due to funding shortages, were held concurrently with the parliamentary elections in October 2018.
In 2017, the ADI parliamentary majority adopted legislation that would have reorganized the composition of the CEN in a manner that the opposition claimed would allow the ADI to manipulate future elections. In March, however, the ADI government chose to maintain the CEN’s structure, negating the legislation.
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 the ADI, MLSTP-PSD, PCD-UDD-MDFM, 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
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.
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 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.
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 out of 55 seats in the 2018 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.
In June 2018, a former agriculture minister and a sergeant in the army were arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate then prime minister Trovoada and kidnap President Carvalho as part of a coup plot, but the suspects were released for lack of evidence.
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. However, there is no specific law guaranteeing public access to government information. Officials rarely disclose their assets and income, although the new Jesus government announced in December 2018 that all ministers would declare their assets. In May, the Court of Auditors reported that 18 of 38 public institutions had failed to submit annual financial reports in the previous two years, as required by law.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 49 / 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: 11 / 12 (+1)
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. Following the October 2018 elections, the police banned demonstrations for 72 hours, drawing criticism from opposition parties and rights activists.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights and governance-related work? 4 / 4 (+1)
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.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because nongovernmental organizations are generally free to operate without restrictions.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Workers 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.
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.
Controversial legislation adopted and signed by the president in 2017, which mandated the creation of a separate Constitutional Court as called for in the constitution, continued to be a source of political conflict in 2018. The new court was granted ultimate authority over election results, and its members could 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 had performed constitutional review functions in the absence of a separate tribunal. In January 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. However, the government defied the ruling, and the National Assembly elected five judges to the Constitutional Court later in the month, in a vote that the opposition boycotted.
The judicial crisis intensified further in May, when the National Assembly voted to dismiss three judges on the Supreme Court, including the court’s president, after some legislators accused the judges of issuing a politicized ruling regarding the ownership of Rosema Brewery, one of the largest companies in the country. The opposition and legal scholars argued that the removal of the judges was unconstitutional and threatened the independence of the Supreme Court. In May, the National Assembly passed legislation allowing itself to elect new judges, to replace those dismissed. The judges initially elected, however, refused to fill the vacancies on the grounds that the removals were unconstitutional. In July, four other judges were elected by the ADI to replace the ousted judges, as well as a fourth judge who had resigned in protest, and were ultimately seated.
At the end of December, the National Assembly, now controlled by MLSTP-PSD and PCD-UDD-MDFM, voted to reinstate the four Supreme Court judges who had been dismissed or resigned in protest, and to remove the five judges who had been elected to the Constitutional Court by the ADI-controlled National Assembly.
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 indigent defendants are sometimes denied access to a lawyer.
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. In October 2018, a young man was beaten to death while in the custody of police officers in the city of Trindade, drawing widespread condemnation. Prisons suffer from overcrowding and other harsh conditions. The country is relatively free of major violence or unrest.
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
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
The constitution establishes the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government has generally respected these rights.
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.