Samoa is a democracy, with a unicameral legislature, the Fono; a Prime Minister who selects the cabinet; and a head of state, similar to a constitutional monarch. Under the constitution, the head of state is elected by the Fono for five years. However, by a special arrangement decided on in 1962 when the constitution came into force, Malietoa Tanumafili II (who died in 2007) and one other senior chief (who died in 1963) were to hold the office for life.
The Prime Minister, who must be a member of the Fono and be supported by a majority of its members, is appointed by the head of state. The Prime Minister chooses 12 members to form the cabinet, which has charge of executive government. The head of state must give their assent to new legislation before it becomes law.
The Fono has 49 members, 47 elected in 41 constituencies by universal adult suffrage, to be contested only by matai title holders (chiefs of aiga, or extended families, of whom there are around 25,000), and two elected from separate electoral rolls comprising those of foreign descent. The Fono sits for five-year terms.
Until 1991 only the matai were eligible to vote, but following a plebiscite universal adult suffrage was introduced in time for that year’s elections. The matai, whose office is elective for life, still administer local government in the traditional manner. They are trustees for customary land held on behalf of the people, which makes up about 80 per cent of all the land in the country.
In the general election in March 2001, the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) – with 23 seats – won more seats than any other party, but was nonetheless challenged by the combined strength of the United Independents (12 seats) and Samoan National Development Party (SNDP; 13). On the resumption of parliament, however, HRPP leader Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi was re-elected Prime Minister and enough independents joined the HRPP to give it an absolute majority.
The general election in March 2006 saw a return to power of the HRPP, increasing its number of seats to 33 with gains from both Samoan Democratic United Party (formerly SNDP, with ten seats) and independents (six).
Malietoa Tanumafili II, head of state since independence in January 1962, died in May 2007 aged 94. According to the constitution, in June 2007 the Fono elected Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi as his successor for a five-year term.
In the March 2011 general election the HRPP and Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi were returned with an increased majority. The HRPP and independents supporting the HRPP together secured 36 seats. The opposition Tautua Samoa Party won 13 seats.
In July 2012 the Fono re-elected Tupua unopposed for a second five-year term as head of state.