Winds of change

Print edition : December 31, 2010

King George Tupou V. He described the election day as historic.-

The general election of November 25 marks the transition of Tonga from an absolute monarchy to a democratic government.

THE Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific began its peaceable transition from an absolute monarchy to a democratic government with the general election on November 25. The common people voted to elect 17 People's Representatives, and the nobles elected, from among themselves, nine members to the 26-member National Assembly. The new government, which is to be in place by December 26, will take over the executive powers once exercised by the King and his appointed Cabinet.

The first democratic elections aroused great enthusiasm among Tongans. As many as 42,000 men and women registered themselves as voters, and some of the constituencies had more than 10 candidates. Tongans turned out in large numbers on the polling day, taking the voter turnout to almost 90 per cent. There were 11 women candidates, but none of them won. There have been demands from women's groups that the new Prime Minister appoint a woman Cabinet Minister since the Constitution gives the Prime Minister the right to appoint four Ministers from outside Parliament.

King George Tupou V described the election day as the greatest and most historic day for our kingdom. The Oxford-educated King will remain the head of state but will no longer exercise executive powers, nor will he appoint the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. He, however, retains the power to dismiss the government in certain circumstances. The winds of change blowing over the tiny island kingdom of Tonga have been a bit harsh for the group of islands known as the Friendly Islands. From a King-appointed government, Tonga has been thrust into the world of hard-boiled politics of backroom negotiations to elect a Prime Minister. The pro-democracy forces led by the Friendly Islands Democratic Party (FIDP) won 12 seats, but to make up the numbers for a majority in the legislature it requires the support of the non-FIDP People's Representatives, or the nobles' representatives.

Tonga is a group of 170 islands in the South Pacific. The name Friendly Islands was given by the British navigator Captain James Cook, who visited them in the mid-1700s and found the islanders to be friendly and welcoming. At 257 square kilometres, the largest island in the archipelago is Tongatapu, where the capital Nuku'alofa is situated. About 36 islands are inhabited, but more than two-thirds of Tonga's population of 103,000 lives on the main island. Nearly half the number of Tongans work overseas, and their remittances fuel the economy.

King George Tupou V succeeded his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, upon his death in September 2006. King Taufa'ahau was one of the longest-reigning monarchs in the world. He ruled for 41 years. He became famous internationally when the Guinness World Records Book listed him as the heaviest monarch in the world, at 205.9 kg.

King Taufa'ahau was a great friend of India; he followed an independent foreign policy and Tonga was among the first few countries to recognise Bangladesh as an independent nation in 1971 even as other major powers were dragging their feet.

AN AERIAL VIEW of Falehau in Tonga. The Tongan economy is dependent on agriculture, fishing, tourism, and the remittances sent home by Tongans living abroad, most of them in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.-

Australian newspapers describe his son, the 60-year-old bachelor King George, as an eccentric. During his long years as crown prince, he was known for his penchant for wearing a monocle and military uniforms topped by a pith helmet. He liked to be driven around in the island in a black London taxi cab he owned.

At the time of his grand coronation ceremony in 2008, King George issued a statement that he would be voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of the people. The statement said that in the Tonga of his reign, there would be no turning back from modernisation, renewal and democracy.

King George said he was committed to economic development and democratic reform. Interestingly, King George has visited Bhutan on three occasions: as crown prince in 2002, then in 2007 and again in May 2010. His visits to Bhutan would have provided the Tongan King the opportunity to witness first hand another kingdom that adopted an elective democratic system.

Tongan economy

The Tongan economy is dependent on agriculture, fishing, tourism, and the remittances sent home by Tongans living abroad, most of them in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Primary education is free and compulsory for children between six and 14 years of age in state-run schools. The average life span is 70 years. The high level of unemployment in the country forces young people to go overseas for work.

Though King Taufa'ahau Tupou was a revered figure, the royal family has often been criticised for its extravagant lifestyle, business interests and control over state assets such as telecom and power. The Tongan society still maintains its traditional values and close family relationships. However, the exigencies of urban life are putting the extended family relationships under stress. A World Bank study has estimated that about 40 per cent of Tonga's population is poor.

Demands for democracy

There have been demands for democracy from the Western-educated elite for some years. The country's large diaspora has brought in new ideas and created political awareness among the people. Some movement towards democratic functioning began during the late King's reign. But it was the new King who announced his intention to initiate constitutional reform.

The pro-democracy movement has been headed by Akilisi Pohiva, who was jailed for sedition during the late King's time. A legislator for several terms, Akilisi Pohiva built up an effective campaign for democracy with support from Tongans living abroad.

The pro-democracy movement grew over the years following a public sector strike in 2005. In November 2006, a pro-democracy demonstration that turned violent resulted in the death of eight persons and the destruction of a major part of the capital's commercial centre.

Shortly afterwards, a constitutional review panel was set up. It recommended that an elected Parliament replace the largely hereditary and appointed legislature. It was decided to have a 26-member Parliament with 17 elected members and nine nobles elected by the nobles themselves. The hereditary nobles belong to 33 warring tribes that were united into a kingdom in 1845 by a leading warrior, Taufa'ahau, an ancestor of the present King. Earlier, Tonga had a Legislative Assembly, and elections were held every three years, but only nine members were elected by the voters; another nine were elected by the nobles from among themselves and the rest were appointed.

The government agreed to hold elections for a new Parliament in November 2010. King George made it clear that the executive powers would be vested in the newly elected Cabinet and that the King would act only on the advice of the Prime Minister. The new Parliament is to elect a Prime Minister within a month.

The FIDP had named Akilisi Pohiva as its leader. As a campaigner for democracy for over two decades, he was hopeful of acquiring a majority with the support of two independent members. But he has to contend with the ambitions of the independents, of whom there are five. Each of them has a political background and a strong claim to be appointed Minister.

The independents include the three People's Representatives from the isolated Vava'u group of islands; two of them were Ministers in the outgoing government and one was the Chief Clerk of the House.

Of the other two independent members, one is a former Secretary of Finance and the other a former Member of Parliament. This makes choosing an independent People's Representative for inclusion in the Cabinet a difficult task.

There have been apprehensions that the independents may strike a deal with the nine nobles to reach the magic figure of 14. The nobles, it is said, are opposed to Akilisi Pohiva as Prime Minister and would rather favour his deputy, Sitiveni Halapua, for the job.

The FIDP has also considered the idea of forming a government of national unity by roping in the independents and the representatives of the nobles. There is a view in the party that it is necessary to involve the nobles and give them a say in the government. The nobles should also feel that they are a part of the government in order to ensure the stability of the government, it is said. The new Prime Minister is to be elected by secret ballot in the National Assembly by the elected representatives after the King appoints an Interim Speaker (who is not a member of the House) to conduct the election.

An era of change has been ushered in with Tonga's first elected National Assembly, and Tongan politicians are learning the lessons of forming a coalition government. The new government will have a period to settle down as a no-confidence motion cannot be moved in Parliament for the first 18 months of its term.

But it will have to face several challenges, the most important being the economy, which has been battered by a decade of stagnation followed by the global economic crisis.

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