1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


The new government of Prime Minister Guilherme Posser da Costa took office in January, inheriting an economy dependent on foreign aid and battered by a fall in the world price of cocoa, its main export. There had already been a decline in cocoa production because of inefficient state plantations. São Tomé and Príncipe has been struggling under a crushing debt of U.S.$300 million, which is 14 times its annual exports. The center-left government planned to introduce an austerity package while seeking to bolster the economy through offshore oil exploration. Officials from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund visited São Tomé and Príncipe in September and said more work needed to be done on reforms, before a proposed adjustment program could qualify for financing. Lenders said the islands nation would have to adjust its spending, press ahead with administrative reforms, and formally announce the privatization of state companies. Under the plan, public service would be trimmed and ports and customs would be reorganized to increase state revenue.

Parliamentary elections were held in November 1998, giving the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe-Social Democratic Party (MLSTP-PSD) an absolute majority. The balloting, which was conducted by an autonomous electoral commission with technical support from Taiwan, enabled the party to regain democratically the power that it had exercised for 16 years as the sole legal party before the country's democratic transition in 1992. In presidential elections scheduled for July 2001, MLSTP-PSD party leader Manuel Pinto da Costa, who served as president during the period of one-party rule, is likely to run against the incumbent, Miguel dos Anjos Trovoada.

São Tomé and Príncipe is extremely poor and has few local resources. Unemployment is endemic. Since achieving independence from Portugal in 1975, the country has mostly relied on external assistance to develop its economy. In 1997, the government established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in exchange for promises of assistance reportedly valued at more than $30 million. In apparent response, Beijing suspended relations and demanded immediate repayment of $11 million in debt. This maneuvering reflects the desperate poverty of most of the country's people. Corruption, including the sale of diplomatic passports, is deeply entrenched.

São Tomé and Príincipe's two islands are located approximately 125 miles off the coast of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea. Seized by Portugal in 1522 and 1523, they became a Portuguese Overseas Province in 1951. Portugal granted local autonomy in 1973 and independence in 1975. Upon independence, the MLSTP, formed in 1960 as the Committee for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe, took power and functioned as the only legal party until a 1990 referendum established multiparty democracy. In 1991, Trovoada, an independent candidate backed by the opposition Democratic Convergence Party, became the first democratically elected president.

A group of demobilized army officers in 1998 threatened to take up arms against the government if promises of financial assistance and jobs for former soldiers were not met. The government then pledged to hasten restructuring of the armed forces and to seek greater assistance for the retired soldiers, many of whom had participated in an abortive and bloodless coup in 1995.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Presidential and legislative elections in 1991 gave São Tomé and Príncipe's citizens their first chance to elect their leader in an open, free, and fair contest. Both the president and parliamentarians serve five-year terms. Legislative elections in 1994 were generally free and fair, but the November 1998 contest, in which the MLSTP-PSD won 31 of the 55 seats in the unicameral national assembly, was apparently the country's most democratic election to date. The Independent Democratic Alliance Party, which supports President Trovoada, won 16 seats.

Trovoada had won a second five-year term in July 1996 after receiving 52.74 percent of the approximately 40,000 votes cast in a runoff election. Despite numerous allegations of vote buying and other irregularities, international observers declared the results free and fair.

An independent judiciary, including a supreme court with members designated by and responsible to the national assembly, was established by the August 1990 referendum on multiparty rule. The court system is overburdened, understaffed, inadequately funded, and plagued by long delays in hearing cases. Prison conditions are reportedly harsh.

Constitutionally protected freedom of expression is respected in practice. One state-run and three independent newspapers are published. While the state controls a local press agency and the only radio and television stations, no law forbids independent broadcasting. The president has encouraged people to enter the private broadcast sector, but no one has. Opposition parties receive free air time, and newsletters and pamphlets criticizing the government circulate freely.

Freedom of assembly is respected. Citizens have the constitutional right to gather and demonstrate with advance notice of two days. They may also travel freely within the country and abroad. Freedom of religion is respected within this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Women hold few leadership positions. Most occupy domestic roles and have less opportunity than men for education or employment. Domestic violence against women is reportedly common.

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