Samoa has a democratic political system with regular elections, though the same political party has been in government for decades, and only traditional heads of families are eligible to run as candidates. The judiciary is independent, and civil liberties are generally respected.
Key Developments in 2018:
- A new political party, Samoa First, registered in July to contest general elections scheduled for 2021.
- In September, Afamasaga Su’a Pou Onesemo, the head of Samoa’s Ministry of Works, Transport, and Infrastructure, was dismissed by the Public Service Commission for mismanagement and breach of contract. He had been suspended earlier in the year after being implicated in a bribery scheme.
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 every five years; 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 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 1988, having been reelected most recently in 2016.
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. Elections are held every five years.
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 seats and the opposition Tautua Samoa Party (TSP) held 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.”
A new political party, Samoa First, registered in July 2018 to contest the general elections scheduled for 2021.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
There are no obvious obstacles that prevent the opposition from increasing its support and gaining power through elections. However, the ruling HRPP has been in power since 1988 and has developed an effective campaign machinery during its incumbency, raising concerns about whether its long say in power 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 fewer women are eligible to 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. However, 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 Office of the Ombudsman, 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 September 2018, the chief executive of Samoa’s Ministry of Works, Transport, and Infrastructure was dismissed by the Public Service Commission, which cited mismanagement and breach of contract; he had been suspended earlier in the year after being implicated in a bribery scheme.
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. However, the effectiveness of the state auditing system remains the subject of public debate, and the country lacks a freedom of information law.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 51 / 60 (+1)
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.
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 guaranteed in Article 11 of the Constitution, and is mostly respected in practice. However, in June 2017, the parliament passed the Constitution Amendment Bill, which shifted references to Samoa being a Christian nation from the preamble of the Constitution to the body. As such, the text can potentially be used in legal action.
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. However, in March, the prime minister threatened to ban Facebook in response to critical comments by anonymous users.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12 (+1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and respected in practice. In March 2018, the Samoa Solidarity International Group (SSIG) submitted a request to the Ministry of Police for a license to peacefully march in the island of Savai’i, to raise awareness about land rights. In April, hundreds participated in the protest march without incident. SSIG held another protest march in December.
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? 4 / 4 (+1)
Workers have the right to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Multiple unions exist, representing both public- and private-sector employees. These are often called “associations”—such as the Samoa Ports Authority Staff Association, the Development Bank of Samoa Staff Association, the Samoa National Provident Fund Staff Association, and the Samoa Nurses Association. The Samoa Workers Congress (SWC) is an umbrella body for all the workers’ unions. As of February 2018, it had seven affiliates, representing a total of 4,100 workers, an increase from 2016, when there were six affiliates and 3,000 workers represented.
Union members’ rights are governed by the Constitution and the 2013 Labour and Employment Relations Act; the latter recognizes unions and employees’ roles and rights, the rights to collective bargaining, and rights to maternity and paternity leave, and mandates the establishment of a National Tripartite Forum, which provides for workers benefits and consults on employment policies and conditions.
Samoa became a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2005 and had ratified all eight of the ILO’s fundamental Conventions by 2008. Unions are still learning about how to best represent their members. Moreover, some cultural factors hinder the ability of workers and unions to pursue their rights.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the establishment of a robust legal framework for trade unions has strengthened worker rights and enabled unions’ growth.
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. Prisons are under resourced, resulting in poor conditions for prisoners including overcrowding, as well as occasional difficulties keeping facilities themselves secure. In early 2018, there was a spate of escapes from the Tafaigata national prison.
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. The Labour and Employment Relations Act also prohibits discrimination against employees on such grounds as ethnicity, race, color, sex, gender, religion, political opinion, sexual orientation, social origin, marital status, pregnancy, HIV status, and disability. However, these are enforced unevenly. In practice women face some discrimination in employment and other aspects of life, and same-sex sexual activity remains a criminal offense for men. 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.