When Europeans began to settle on the Samoan islands in the late 1700s, there was no single political structure that governed the people. Warfare among the islanders was made more violent when whalers and other outsiders introduced muskets and gunpowder. European rivalry for Pacific Island possessions led Germany to annex the western portion of the archipelago in 1900. In 1914, New Zealand took over what came to be called Western Samoa under a mandate from the League of Nations. That mandate evolved into a United Nations (UN) trusteeship after World War II. In 1962, Western Samoa became the first independent Pacific Island nation, joining the British Commonwealth in 1970 and the UN in 1976. Changing the country's name in 1997 reflected the pride in these early political achievements, particularly in contrast to the dependent status of American Samoa.
Samoa's Constitution combines European concepts and practices with those of fa'a Samoa (Samoan custom). Basic to the latter is an elaborate system of chiefly titles, the matai system. Holders of the two highest titles ( tama-a-'aiga ) became joint heads of state at the time of independence. The surviving title-holder, Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II, has been sole head of state since 1963; it is not clear what will happen when the time comes for him to be succeeded.
The laws that govern the nation are enacted by the legislative assembly, or Fono a Faipule. An important constitutional change was made in November 1991. Until that time, only holders of matai titles were allowed to elect members of the Fono. This meant that most women and many young men could not vote since few of them were matai . Under the 1991 constitutional reforms, the vote was granted to all Samoans 21 years or older although only matai are eligible to run for Fono office. The term of the Fono was increased from three to five years and the number of cabinet members from eight to twelve. Two Fono members are elected by non-Samoans of European or mixed descent on a separate electoral roll.
The legitimacy of the matai electoral system had been a matter of controversy since the 1980s and led to the formation of political parties. It is not clear how the new system of universal suffrage will affect the composition of these parties, and there is still sentiment that all Samoans, not only matai , should be eligible to run for election to the Fono. Some object that the 1991 reforms were never voted on by all the people. So far the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been able to hold power for an unprecedented six terms against the opposition of the Samoa National Democratic Party, the Samoa Labour Party, and smaller groups. HRPP's dominance, however, has not been maintained without trouble.
In July 1999, Samoa's minister of public works, Luagalau Levaula Samuelu Kamu, was shot and killed at a political function hosted by the ruling HRPP, as it celebrated its 20th anniversary. A Samoan legislator, a cabinet minister's son, and a third man were charged with murder in the assassination.