- São Tomé e Príncipe has a semi-presidential system, in which the president occupies the functions of head of state while a prime minister serves as head of government
- The president of the republic is elected by universal suffrage and is limited to a maximum of two five-year terms. If no candidate receives more than 50%, a second round is held
- The president is responsible for naming the prime minister from among the political parties represented in the National Assembly
- The unicameral parliament is the country’s legislative body and its 55 members are elected to serve four-year terms. Elections are held on the basis of multi-member constituencies using a party-list proportional representation system
- At present São Tomé e Príncipe has a government of cohabitation. Acção Democrática Independente (ADI) commands a majority in the National Assembly while the president comes from the Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe/Partido Social Democrata (MLSTP-PSD)
São Tomé e Príncipe won independence from Portugal in 1975. Political competition was initially restricted to the confines of the national liberation movement, the MLSTP, under a single-party system. Its leader, Manuel Pinto da Costa, was elected as the first country’s president by a constituent assembly in July 1975, and re-elected by the National People’s Assembly in 1980 and 1985.
Multi-party politics was instituted following a popular referendum in August 1990, in which 95.3% of voters approved an amended constitution. This introduced a semi-presidential system, which has been the source of recurrent political and institutional instability.
The MLSTP rebranded itself as the MLSTP-PSD in October 1990, but lost the first multi-party legislative elections to the Partido de Convergência Democrática-Grupo de Reflexão (PCD-GR) in January 1991. PCD-GR won 33 of the 55 seats in the assembly, with MLSTP-PSD taking 21. Pinto da Costa announced his retirement from politics rather than contest the March 1991 presidential elections. Accordingly, Miguel Trovoada, an independent backed by the PCD-GR, was elected unopposed.
In May 1992, President Trovoada dismissed the government and named a new cabinet. Two years later, he dissolved parliament and formed a caretaker government. He picked Evaristo Carvalho as his prime minister, representing the ADI, a new party established by Trovoada. In the October 1994 legislative elections the MLSTP-PSD took 42% of the vote and obtained the most seats. However, the party was unable to command a working majority with its 27 seats while the ADI and PCD-GR both held 14.
In August 1995, a group of military officers, disgruntled with conditions in the armed forces, seized the presidential palace and held Miguel Trovoada for three days. Following a week of uncertainty, a memorandum of understanding was signed restoring the civilian government.
Trovoada faced Pinto da Costa in presidential elections in July 1996. With no candidate obtaining a majority of votes, a second round was organised, which Trovoada won with 53.74% of the vote. In September 1996, the president dismissed the government and, in November, appointed a cabinet containing members of both the MLSTP-PSD and PCD-GR. The MLSTP-PSD won the November 1998 elections, with 50.6% of the votes, obtaining 31 of the 55 seats. ADI won 16 and PCD-GR took 8.
Having served two five-year presidential terms, Miguel Trovoada was ineligible to stand for re-election in July 2001. Businessman Fradique de Menezes defeated Pinto da Costa with 55.18% of the vote. Menezes dismissed the government, dissolved the parliament and formed a new cabinet, primarily comprised of ADI members. Patrice Trovoada, Miguel Trovoada’s son, was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs.
During his first term as president, Menezes established the Movimento Democrático das Forças da Mudança-Partido Liberal (MDFM-PL), which formed an alliance with the PCD-GR. The March 2002 legislative elections saw the MLSTP-PSD narrowly defeat a coalition of MDFM-PL and PCD-GR candidates. With the former winning 24 seats and the latter taking 23, a government of national unity was formed, led by Gabriel Costa; but this was dismissed in September 2002.
The close degree of competition spurred a change to the political system. The president’s decision to sack Gabriel Costa remained controversial, even among legislators from Menezes’ party, many of whom were ex-ADI members. Opposition to the president’s actions helped to mobilise the two-thirds majority required for parliament to amend the constitution.
The January 2003 constitutional amendment strengthened the authority of the parliament vis-à-vis the president, making it more difficult for the head of state to dismiss the government. However, a number of executive competencies were retained until the beginning of the next presidential term. During that period there was another attempted military coup, which lasted slightly more than a week, and two prime ministers were sacked.
The MDFM-PL won the March 2006 parliamentary elections with 37% of the vote and 23 seats, compared to 30% and 20 seats for MLSTP-PSD. In July 2006, Menezes was re-elected as president with 60.6%, ahead of Patrice Trovoada on 38.8%. In early 2008, Menezes sacked the prime minister and appointed Trovoada as head of government. Trovoada was later dismissed and the MLSTP-PSD formed a new government.
In the August 2010 legislative elections a resurgent ADI won 43% of the vote and 26 seats, leading Trovoada to become prime minister. The MLSTP-PSD obtained 33% and 21 seats. Pinto da Costa won the second round of the August 2011 presidential elections, on a MLSTP-PSD ticket, returning to power after a twenty year hiatus. In December 2012, following a no-confidence vote in parliament, Pinto da Costa dismissed the government and called on the MLSTP-PSD to form a new administration.
In August 2013, the National Assembly approved a bill to revise the electoral law. Among other things, it aimed to tackle electoral corruption and ‘banho’, or vote-buying, a common electoral practice.
The leaders of the main political parties, Trovoada (ADI) and Aurélio Martins (MLSTP-PSD), have declared that they will not stand in the 2016 presidential elections. Pinto da Costa, who is 78 years old, has not yet announced whether he will run for a second consecutive term.
It remains to be seen whether the sixteenth government will succeed in becoming the first to complete a full term in office since 1990.
Gustavo Plácido dos Santos is a Researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS). He tweets as @PlacidoGustavo and contributes to the blog Africa Defence & Security.