Samoa is a democracy with a unicameral legislature, the Fono. The head of state is 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 and one other senior chief (who died in 1963) were to hold the office for life. On Malietoa’s death in 2007, Samoa became a republic, and the Fono elected Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi as head of state for five years.

The prime minister is the head of government and is appointed by the head of state. The prime minister must be a member of the Fono and be supported by a majority of its members. He or she selects 12 members of the Fono to form a cabinet, which has charge of executive government. The head of state must assent to new legislation.

The Fono has 49 members. 47 of these are elected in 41 constituencies by universal adult suffrage, to be contested only by matai title holders (chiefs of agia 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 election. 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; this land makes up about 80% of all the land in the country.

The Supreme Court is presided over by the chief justice, and has jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters. The Court of Appeal, whose president is the chief justice, deals with appeals from the lower courts.

There are two district courts (‘magistrates’ courts’ until 1998), and the Land and Titles Court, whose president is a judge of the Supreme Court, and which has jurisdiction in disputes over land.