AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Samoans will head to the polls on March 4 in the first national election since a legislative change imposed a requirement for greater representation of women in parliament.
The election will require women to hold at least 10% of parliamentary seats, in line with a law enacted in 2013. The partial democracy of 190,000 people has not had more than five women at any one time in its 49-seat fono, or legislature, since independence in 1962.
Only family heads, or matai, are allowed to sit in the fono. There are 16,787 matai, but just 923, or roughly 5.5%, are women.
If fewer than five women are elected the electoral mechanism will automatically create sufficient additional seats to raise the female fono membership to five. The additional seats will be awarded to the losing female candidates who gain the highest number of votes.
Apart from greater representation for women, the election is not expected to bring sweeping changes to the nation's two-party politics. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele will keep his seat, which is one of 17 held by the ruling Human Rights Protection Party that are uncontested. Tuilaepa, 70, holds four powerful matai titles and has been finance minister since 1988 and prime minister since 1998.
In the last parliament the HRPP held 36 seats, of which three were won by women. Two were daughters of former prime ministers.
The Electoral Commission said that 171 candidates will run this time, including 24 women. The HRPP is fielding 83 candidates while the opposition Tautua Samoa Party is putting up 25. The remaining candidates are independents.
The change in the law on female representation was implemented with the hope of eventually eradicating gender discrimination, which is entrenched in Samoan culture. A National University of Samoa study of the electoral system found that gender issues were politically sensitive because "Samoa is proud of its customs and traditions."
However, the study said that the experiences of large numbers of Samoans living abroad had generated an expectation of gender equality and equity in Samoa.
Tuilaepa said the revised electoral system did not mean that women were getting an easy ride to government, adding that that they "will still have to go through the same baptism of fire." He also reminded them that they must not neglect their "God-given" duties as mothers.
One of the women who are standing, Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson, 74, said she felt it was her duty to show women in Samoa that they could break out of the mold. "They need to know that it is possible, and not to fit into negative cultural stereotypes," said Jackson, who was 22 when she first received a matai title.
"I have seen many, many changes in village leadership and national leadership, but in that time I have also seen stagnant governance values. I chose to run for elections because I want those after me to see this as a normal aspiration," she said.
Her daughter, development consultant Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, said she had "no tolerance for discriminatory and violent aspects" of Samoan culture.
"What I found most amusing in the interviews I had with women and men from the village is that women kept referring to men as head of the family and men kept saying things like 'when I let her speak' or 'sometimes she thinks she has the last say,'" said Lagipoiva, who is known by her chiefly title.
"What it will do is create a lot of conflict in the village as our systems migrate from Samoan democratic practice of enforcing and approval of village candidature, to actual democracy of freedom to vote and to run," she added.
A poll by the Samoan Observer, a local newspaper, showed strong support for women in parliament. However, some opponents continue to hold strong views. Matai Fuiavailili Tagiilima said that "white people" were forcing the change, referring to Samoa's minority population of European descent.
"The decision-making should come from the men because they are the heads of the families," he said. "It's both Biblical and cultural. We should keep it that way."
Matai are chosen by their extended families. Until 1991 only matai could sit on village councils and elect MPs. Since then, people aged 21 and over have been able to vote.