Tonga: A litmus test for democracy

Date first published: 2/4/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political stability

Recent developments in Tonga have thrown the political landscape into renewed tumult. On 26 March, King Tupou VI referred government corruption allegations to the Ombudsman Commission, the Attorney General’s office and the Police Commissioner for further investigation. The allegations were contained in petitions submitted by leading opponents of Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva. Since reforms in 2010, the Pacific Island nation is in the midst of a democratic transition. In 2014, long-time MP and democratic campaigner Akilisi Pohiva became Tonga’s first democratically elected prime minister. However, the last two years have been marred by a constant power struggle between the King and the government. Once again, Tonga’s political stability finds itself at the hands of Tupou VI.

The petitions’ referral is only a small victory for the opposition, who had demanded a dissolution of parliament. The King is no stranger to this prerogative. In August 2017 Tupou VI dissolved parliament on the advice of the Speaker, who claimed that Prime Minister Pohiva was attempting to gain powers held by the King. The move followed months of government controversy, legal disputes and political infighting. In February 2017 an unsuccessful motion of no confidence was launched against Pohiva’s government. However, the King’s intervention did not succeed in removing Pohiva from power. New elections were called and Pohiva was re-elected Prime Minister in December 2017. Since then, the political landscape has been fraught with constant wrestling between the King and the government.

Meanwhile, political infighting and controversies carry on. In March 2018, the King’s noble and former prime minister, Lord Tu’ivakano, was arrested and charged for making false statements, as well committing bribery and money laundering offences. There is also a great deal of controversy over the company that manages Tonga’s orbital space, Tongasat. The Pohiva government is suing the company, partly owned by King Tupou’s sister, over a US$50m payment from China. Beijing made the payments after it was found to have placed a satellite in Tonga’s orbital space in 2006, but the “aid grants” were not approved by the government at the time.

So who holds the power in Tonga? In 2010, the country brought in a number of democratic reforms, but the nobility and the King still retain a degree of influence over government. Nobles hold nine seats in legislature. The King appoints judges, the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General. However, the government wants to gain control over all of this. In March the Cabinet introduced six “urgent” bills to be passed in by parliament. At least two of those bills refer directly to reforming the power of the King in terms of appointment of some of the senior officers of government. Rather than respond by attempting to oust Pohiva, Tupou VI delayed the urgent legislation until May. Indeed, the King likely realises that Pohiva has the popular support to see him elected again in the event of another dissolution of parliament.

Less than 10 years after sweeping democratic reforms, Tonga is still figuring out its own definition of democracy. Despite demands from senior members of government, the King stopped short of dissolving parliament, an indication that the country has achieved some level of progress over the past two years. Tonga now finds itself at a turning point. The King’s next move will determine the durability of the young democracy.