Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

TONGA – General Elections

Digital Snapshot #26/21

23 November 2021

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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The Kingdom of Tonga held general elections on 18 November 2021.

Tonga – a constitutional monarchy – has a unicameral Parliament (Legislative Assembly) (Fale Alea) with 26 seats. 17 seats are reserved for democratically elected representatives; 9 seats are chosen by the noble families amongst themselves. This year, more than 60,000 registered voters were called upon to elect their representatives from 72 candidates, including 12 women. Voters must be aged 21 or over and be in Tonga to be eligible to vote. This means that the large Tongan diaspora (an estimated 120,000 people compared to an estimated population of 106,000 in Tonga) was unable to vote. While officials argue that the country was “not yet ready for it”; supporters (of postal voting) say the government sought to avoid interference from abroad. The number of candidates was lower than in the previous election, possibly because citizens were unable to return to Tonga in time to complete 3 months of residence required for them to be eligible to stand for the election. The voter turnout declined from a high of 91% in 2010 down to 62% in this election. Some voters may have erroneously assumed that they were automatically enrolled if they held a national identification card.

The elections were the fourth elections since the introduction of reforms that removed most of the King’s executive powers, created 8 additional seats for people’s representatives and provided for the prime minister to be elected by his peers. They were the first elections held since the death of former long term Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva from the Paati Temokalati ‘Otumotu Anga’ofa (PTOA) (Tongan acronym for “Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands”). The name “Friendly Islands” goes back to Captain James Cook who visited the archipelago in the 1770s. Following Akilisi Pohiva’s death, the Hon. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa (parliament.gov.to) from the Paati ‘a e Kakai ʻo Tonga (PKT) (“Tonga People’s Party Inc”) became Prime Minister with the support of independent MPs, former members of the PTOA and the nobles. Since then, we are told, polarisation is on the rise between those who favour a more democratic system and those who would like to retain the monarchy. And, the government has been caught up in political infighting, including accusations of conflicts of interest, nepotism, and misappropriation. In the end of 2020, PTOA leader Semisi Sika – backed by Deputy PM Sione Vuna Fa’otusia – brought a non-confidence motion against PM Tu’i’onetoa. Whilst the Prime Minister defeated the motion, one of his closest cabinet ministers was sentenced for corruption. The election campaign was affected by restrictions imposed after Tonga recorded its first coronavirus case – a traveller from New Zealand with a weak positive result – in the run up to the election.

According to the preliminary elections results, Tonga has elected an all-male parliament, including 9 new people’s representatives and 3 new nobles’ representatives. The only incumbent female MP, Hon. Losaline Ma’asi (parliament.gov.to), 1 of only 6 women who were elected to parliament since the introduction of universal suffrage for women in 1951, did not make it for a second term.

Prime Minister and PKT leader Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa retained his constituency. In his quest to form government and to be re-elected prime minister, he may reportedly face competition by Siaosi Sovaleni, the former minister for education. Mr Sovaleni obtained 83% of the votes, that is, the highest by any candidate in this election. A third term MP and seasoned politician, he is described as the emerging leader of a group of newly elected people’s representatives, including Tatafu Moeaki, Sevenitini Toumo’ua and Sangster Saulala. According to researchers, this group could form the new government if they sided with the nobles’ representatives.

Media report that the Hon. Siaosi Pohiva (parliament.gov.to), son of Tonga’s former prime minister Akilisi Pohiva, was defeated by Tevita Puloka, a businessman and close relative of King Tupou VI. Likewise, the Hon. Mateni Tapueluelu (parliament.gov.to), Akilisi’s son-in-law, is reported to have lost his seat to Tatafu Moeaki, the minister for economic development in the last parliament. Akilisi’s former deputy prime minister, the Hon. Semisi Sika (parliament.gov.to), we are told, was also “rejected” by the voters. This development is said to bring to an end Akilisi’s political legacy, and to relegate PTOA to the opposition, unless the party aligns itself with the aforementioned group of newly elected people’s representatives.

The 33 noble title holders selected nine nobles’ representatives, including the newly elect Lord Vaea, Lord Fohe and Lord Fotofili. 2 of them are replacing nobles who were out of the country for medical reasons. Usually acting as a unified bloc, the nobles’ representatives are anticipated to play a pivotal role in the formation of government again.

Tonga currently faces 3 main challenges, namely the ongoing pandemic, illicit drugs and corruption. The country’s external borders remain closed and may not be re-opened before 2022, meaning there are no tourists and many Tongans who are unable to return. So far under 40 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated (Source: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations – Statistics and Research – Our World in Data, 15 November). As per the Director of the Tongan Women and Children Crisis Centre, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Tonga is no longer just a transit point for traffickers taking their products from South America to Australia or New Zealand, but has become its own small market. In her view, “… there’s a real urgency for whoever the new government is to take some concrete measures and ensure that we really address this issue.” Turning to the lack of female representation in Tongan politics, she said the “system needs to change, and parliamentarians need to be willing to use special measures to help increase the number of women in politics”. Similarly, it seems that the new government will have to act on corruption. The use of so called “constituency development funds” may also be on the agenda.

The final election results are scheduled to be announced on 2 December. The nomination of candidates and election of the new prime minister is expected by Christmas.