POLITICS OF TONGA

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Tonga operates as a constitutional monarchy. The reverence for the monarch is likened to that held in earlier centuries for the sacred paramount chief, the Tuʻi Tonga. Criticism of the monarch is held to be contrary to Tongan culture and etiquette. A direct descendant of the first monarch, King George Tupou V, his family, some powerful nobles, and a growing non-royal elite caste live in much wealth, with the rest of the country living in relative poverty. The effects of this disparity are mitigated by three factors: education, medicine, and land tenure.

Tonga provides free and mandatory education for all children up to the age of fourteen, with only nominal fees for secondary education, and foreign-funded scholarships for post-secondary education. Tongans enjoy a relatively high level of education, with a 98% literacy rate, and higher education up to and including medical and graduate degrees pursued mostly overseas.

Tongans also have universal access to a national health system. Tongan land is constitutionally protected and cannot be sold to foreigners (although it may be leased). While there is a land shortage on the urbanized main island of Tongatapu (where 70% of the population resides), there is farm land available in the outlying islands. The majority of the population engages in some form of subsistence production of food, with approximately half producing almost all of their basic food needs through farming, sea harvesting, and animal husbandry. Women and men have equal access to education and health care, and are fairly equal in employment, but women are discriminated against in land holding, electoral politics, and government ministries. However, in Tongan tradition women enjoy a higher social status than men, a cultural trait that is unique among the insular societies of the Pacific.

The pro-democracy movement in Tonga promotes reforms, including better representation in the Parliament for the majority commoners, and better accountability in matters of state. An overthrow of the monarchy itself is not part of the movement and the institution of monarchy continues to hold popular support, even while reforms are advocated. Until recently, the governance issue was generally ignored by the leaders of other countries, but major aid donors and neighbours New Zealand and Australia are now expressing concerns about some Tongan government actions.

Following the precedents of Queen Sālote, and the consel of numerous international advisors, the government of Tonga under King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV monetized the economy, internationalized the medical and education system, and enabled access by commoners to increasing forms of material wealth (houses, cars, and other commodities), education, and overseas travel. The government has supported Olympic and other international sports competition, and contributed Peacekeepers to the United Nations (notably to Bougainville and the Solomon Islands). The Tongan government also supported the American "coalition of the willing" action in Iraq, and a small number of Tongan soldiers were deployed, as part of an American force, to Iraq in late 2004. However, the contingent of 40+ troops returned home on 17 December 2004. In 2007, a second contingent was sent to Iraq while two more were sent during 2008 to be part of Tonga's continuous support for the coalition. This Tongan involvement was finally concluded at the end of 2008 with no loss of Tongan life reported.

The previous king, Tāufaʻāhau and his government made some problematic economic decisions and are accused of wasting millions of dollars in poor investments. The problems have mostly been driven by attempts to increase national revenue through a variety of schemes, considering making Tonga a nuclear waste disposal site (an idea floated in the mid-90s by the current crown prince); selling Tongan Protected Persons Passports (which eventually forced Tonga to naturalize the purchasers, sparking ethnicity-based concerns within Tonga); registering foreign ships (which proved to be engaged in illegal activities, including shipments for al-Qaeda); claiming geo-orbital satellite slots (the revenue from which seems to belong to the Princess Royal, not the state); holding a long-term charter on an unusable Boeing 757 that was sidelined in Auckland Airport, leading to the collapse of Royal Tongan Airlines; building an airport hotel and potential casino with an Interpol-accused criminal and approving a factory for exporting cigarettes to China (against the advice of Tongan medical officials, and decades of health promotion messaging). The king has proved vulnerable to speculators with big promises and lost several million (reportedly 26 million USD) to Jesse Bogdonoff, a financial adviser who called himself the king's Court Jester. The police have imprisoned pro-democracy leaders, and the government repeatedly confiscated the newspaper The Tongan Times (which was printed in New Zealand and sold in Tonga) because the editor had been vocally critical of the king's mistakes. Notably, the Keleʻa, produced specifically to critique the government and printed in Tonga by pro-democracy leader ʻAkilisi Pōhiva, was not banned during that time. Pōhiva, however, had been subjected to harassment in the form of frequent lawsuits.

In mid-2003 the government passed a radical constitutional amendment to "Tonganize" the press, by licensing and limiting freedom of the press, so as to protect the image of the monarchy. The amendment was defended by the government and by royalists on the basis of traditional cultural values. Licensure criteria include 80% ownership by Tongans living in the country. As of February 2004, those papers denied licenses under the new act included the Taimi ʻo Tonga (Tongan Times), the Keleʻa and the Matangi Tonga, while those which were permitted licenses were uniformly church-based or pro-government. The bill was opposed in the form of a several-thousand-strong protest march in the capital, a call by the Tuʻi Pelehake (a prince, nephew of the king and elected member of parliament) for Australia and other nations to pressure the Tongan government to democratize the electoral system, and a legal writ calling for a judicial investigation of the bill. The latter was supported by some 160 signatures, including seven of the nine elected "People's Representatives". The strong-arm tactics and gaffes have overshadowed the good that the aged king had done in his lifetime, as well as the many beneficial reforms of his son, ʻAhoʻeitu ʻUnuakiʻotonga Tukuʻaho (Lavaka Ata ʻUlukālala), who was Prime Minister from January 3, 2000 to February 11, 2006. The former Crown Prince and current monarch, Tupoutoʻa, and Pilolevu, the Princess Royal, remained generally silent on the issue. In total, the changes threatened to destabilize the polity, fragment support for the status quo, and place further pressure on the monarchy.

In 2005 the government spent several weeks negotiating with striking civil-service workers before reaching a settlement. The civil unrest that ensued was not limited to just Tonga; protests outside the king's New Zealand residence made headlines, too. A constitutional commission is currently (2005-06) studying proposals to update the constitution.

Prime Minister Prince ʻAhoʻeitu ʻUnuakiʻotonga Tukuʻaho (Lavaka Ata ʻUlukālala) resigned suddenly on February 11, 2006, and also gave up his other cabinet portfolios. The elected Minister of Labour, Dr Feleti Sevele, replaced him in the interim. On July 5, 2006 a driver in Menlo Park, California caused the deaths of Prince Tu'ipelehake ʻUluvalu, his wife, and their driver. Tu'ipelehake, 55, was the co-chairman of the constitutional reform commission, and a nephew of the King.

The Tongan public expected some changes when Siaosi Tupou V (later King George Tupou V) succeeded his father in 2006. On November 16, 2006, rioting broke out in the capital city of Nuku'alofa when it seemed that the parliament would adjourn for the year without having made any advances in increasing democracy in government. Pro-democracy activists burned and looted shops, offices, and government buildings. As a result, more than 60% of the downtown area was destroyed, and as many as 6 people died. On July 29, 2008 the Palace announced that King George Tupou V would relinquish much of his power and would surrender his role in day-to-day governmental affairs to the Prime Minister. The royal chamberlain said that this was being done to prepare the monarchy for 2010, when most of the first parliament will be elected, and added: "The Sovereign of the only Polynesian kingdom... is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people." The previous week, the government said the king had completed the sale of his ownership of state assets which had contributed to much of the royal family's wealth.