Tonga: Power to the people

Tongans from all walks of life are about to vote in their first democratic election.
Tongans from all walks of life are about to vote in their first democratic election.

Tonga is making history as it prepares for its first ever democratic elections this month. King George TupouV has finally agreed to relinquish some of his control over the island nation, but will the locals get the real change they've been hoping for? Sarah Harvey investigates. Photos by Phil Doyle.

IT IS 5.30pm on a weekday and the pews of the Free Wesleyan Church are packed with dozens of people, their heads hung in prayer. After five minutes of quiet reverence, the congregation breaks into loud and tuneful song, easily filling the corners of the whitewashed church, rising up to the bright blue roof, and spreading out across the neighbourhood through the slatted windows.

The members of this church in Sopu, Tongatapu – Tonga's main island – are varied. Giggling schoolgirls wear modern takes on the traditional ta'ovala (a woven mat worn round the waist as a sign of respect); older woman corral and grumble at their boisterous grandchildren. Then there are the politicians, who raise their heads at the sound of their name called from the pulpit, for this prayer is particularly important for them.

Island-style democracy: A billboard hails the architect of the coming change to the island nation, as a policeman casts an eye on the photographer.
Island-style democracy: A billboard hails the architect of the coming change to the island nation, as a policeman casts an eye on the photographer.

The island nation of Tonga is about to experience historic political and social change, and the best way the people can deal with the uncertainty of the weeks ahead is to turn to the central point in their lives, their houses of worship. Church bells ring at 5am and 5pm during a week of national prayer, which has been called ahead of the first national democratic elections in Tonga's history, on November 25. Our closest independent Pacific neighbours are praying that the change they've long hoped and fought for is finally here.

TWO YEARS ago the Tongan king, George Tupou V, announced that he would relinquish the monarchy's 100-year stranglehold on the Tongan government in 2010. Tupou, who conceded power in the wake of a riot that all but destroyed the central business district of the capital, Nuku'alofa, announced three days before an extravagant coronation that he would allow, for the first time in the nation's history, the "common people" to vote for the majority of their politicians.

The 33-seat legislative assembly in which only nine members were elected by the people would become a 26-seat assembly with 17 seats voted in. The remaining nine would be chosen from the country's 30 or so nobles. The king said he would be guided in day-to-day matters by a prime minister – who would be chosen behind closed doors by the 26-seat assembly.

Election candidate  Posesi Bloomfield with his wife Sela.
Election candidate Posesi Bloomfield with his wife Sela.

When the democratic changes were announced, the founders of the pro-democracy movement rejoiced. Longtime commoner MP Akilisi Pohiva, who has used flowery revolutionary language to the great irritation of the royal family for nearly two decades, told the Sunday Star-Times it was a watershed moment in the country's history after decades of increasingly loud calls for change.

Democracy is coming to the 170-island Pacific archipelago but, says Pohiva, it is democracy the king's way – with him still very much in power. "I think the present king is wise because he is willing to surrender his power to the people. That guarantees the safety and the security of the monarchy."

The king, a strange relic of old Tonga, retains the right to dismiss the government and to veto any laws. He will also have power over the Tonga Defence Service, which, according to some reports, is being bolstered with the possible intent of controlling any misfits elected to the new parliament.

A week of national prayer has been called ahead of Tonga's first national democratic elections on November 25.
A week of national prayer has been called ahead of Tonga's first national democratic elections on November 25.

Clive Edwards, a former Auckland lawyer who is now a leading MP in Tonga and was its police minister from 1996 to 2004, says whoever is in control will have to use moderation. "If they don't go along as expected, the army may be used. If change comes about and people are in too much of a rush to do things, they will come into conflict with the monarch and the existing regime."

Tupou will also retain his judicial powers, which includes the right to sign death warrants in the kingdom. Tonga, along with Samoa, retains capital punishment, although it has never been used in Samoa.

A lord chancellor will nominally look after judicial affairs on behalf of the people but will be appointed by, and report to, the king. He is likely to be one of the king's close friends, Tonga law lord Ramsay Dalgety. The Sunday Star-Times spotted him in a tourist cafe, from which he seemed to eye everybody suspiciously.

The aged Scottish lawyer, who uses a cane, was conspicuous in suit pants and tie, despite Nuku'alofa's dusty streets. While the Sunday Star-Times was in Tonga, the country's high court dismissed perjury charges against Dalgety after he gave bizarre evidence to an inquiry into the sinking of the ferry the Ashika last year, in which 74 people died.

To add to the public's concerns about democracy, after the election nobles will not only retain their share of power, holding on to the nine seats in the assembly, but will keep a firm grip on all of the country's land – a crucial reminder of political power in a largely agrarian society.

University of Auckland Pacific politics expert Dr Steve Ratuva said he expected many of the candidates to win by a margin of only one or two votes and by obtaining as little as 150 votes. In most constituencies there are about 2000 voters.

"The king still holds considerable power. So if the members of the cabinet are going to be from the 17 commoners, you are going to have an interesting situation where the nobles hold the balance of power."

PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATE Posesi Bloomfield, 36, who has arts and laws degrees from Australian National University and a masters in public administration from Harvard, said the most important thing now for the Tongan people was a government that was transparent.

"The [current] government feel they are doing a good job, but the people don't think that."

Bloomfield, who runs a law firm with wife Sela, once head girl at Epsom Girls Grammar in Auckland, has been campaigning in a way that would not be out of place in New Zealand. He has door-knocked in 14 villages and held numerous meetings in community halls. He surveyed every house he visited and said the main issue for Tongans – ahead of education, health and jobs – was being able to trust their government. "Once we have a good government, everything else will fall into place."

Democracy for Tongans, they told the Star-Times, means hope that the nation will step away from laws being made without their knowledge, away from exorbitant power prices, away from corrupt officials and towards a more prosperous life. A staggering 80% of Tongans are under the age of 40 and it is the young, more educated generations who will benefit from the change. Like New Zealand's young, they want the latest clothes, want to work in town rather than in their village and have the latest gadgets.

Their parents, and the majority of the voting population, covet fewer of the baubles but rather want a new government that will be faitotonu – do the right thing. But when the very political candidates who are meant to bring about the change are bribing the voters, an outsider may wonder how genuine that change can be. Bloomfield said a sack of sugar or flour can buy a vote for villagers who are either unemployed or earn as little as $7 a day.

In this year's Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Tonga was ranked at 101 in the world. By comparison, Samoa was ranked at 62, Vanuatu 73, Kiribati 91, and New Zealand at number one.

Despite the allegations of corruption, Tongans are optimistic about the election. Sione Tupou 'Akolo, a commoner in Longoteme, a lagoon-side village, said the old government looked down on commoners and "now we choose who we put in there".

"We pray for the government and the people in the government. What is important to us is the honesty."

For the villagers, the king is a largely obsolete symbol of old Tonga.

Many the Star-Times talked to said the king had spent far too much time appealing to the whims of colonial powers, and increasingly to the Chinese, rather than helping out his people. On a van trip into Nuku'alofa, our driver pointed at the large building and shops owned and built by the Chinese, with Chinese materials, Chinese labour and Chinese money – on loan to the Tongans. As well, when the shops opened, they employed Chinese staff, he said.

The king appeared to be conspicuous by his absence in Tonga during the time the Sunday Star-Times spent there earlier this month.

He has forgone the pretty wooden palace on the waterfront in downtown Nuku'alofa for a hillside mansion further inland from the main town. His hillside palace has marble columns, an enormous pool and other signs of extravagance.

The king is also feeling the heat from a group of pro-democracy MPs and Auckland-based Tongan activists over his sale of 'Atalanga, his once lavish but now faded property in the upmarket Auckland suburb of Epsom, considered to be worth about $10 million.

NEW ZEALAND High Commissioner to Tonga Jonathan Austin, sitting in the air conditioned cool of his downtown Nuku'alofa office, says he is often asked why New Zealanders should care about Tonga.

Austin, who has just started his second three-year post in the country, points out there are 35,000 Tongan people living in New Zealand, many of whom are taxpayers; Tonga is New Zealand's closest independent neighbour and, as it is significantly poorer than New Zealand, it "made sense" to direct a lot of aid to the poorest place closest to us. Last year NZ contributed up to $25 million in aid to Tonga.

The money from New Zealand's aid programme goes principally to education with a view to developing the curriculum and providing resources such as school books. The New Zealand government provides school grants to every school in Tonga and scholarships for Tongan people to complete tertiary study both at home in Tonga, in Fiji and here in New Zealand.

We are also developing a programme of assistance for Tonga's tourism industry. Austin says, with an ounce of jest, that it is the last hope. He says New Zealand has in the past tried to help Tonga with fisheries, agriculture and small industry, among other things. "We think Tonga does have a unique feel." There is a programme of assistance for the police which includes supplying them with new vehicles, which they seem to have discovered go very fast, even on potholed roads. The commissioner of police, Chris Kelly, was seconded from the New Zealand police force.

There has been support for the election process and there will be for the new parliament, Austin says.

IT'S BEEN a rocky road to the election. Only four years ago, eight people died and most of Nuku'alofa's central business district was destroyed as rioters vented their anger at the stubborn monarchy and government.

The scars from November 16, 2006, are still very evident. Many buildings remain piles of rubble, while others still have smoke damage. An estimated 6000 rioters were arrested, and some remain in Hu'atolitoli Prison.

MP Edwards was accused of inciting the riots and was dumped in a cell he describes to the Sunday Star-Times as more like a dungeon. He was held there for three days but it took more than three years to fight the charges of sedition. Eventually, in May this year, the charges were dismissed.

Pro-democracy MP Pohiva, who also spent three days in jail and whose sedition charges were later dropped, says the riots occurred because the people had been waiting too long for change. Pohiva has been one of the most vocal opponents of the monarchy. He has been agitating for democratic rule since his student days at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji in 1976, when he learned that the then minister of education in Tonga had put forward a proposal to the king to review Tonga's constitution. The proposal was debated 12 times in the cabinet but eventually dismissed.

When Pohiva returned to Tonga in 1978 he felt that "someone had to keep putting the pressure on". In 1981 he started a programme on government-run radio with the idea of getting alternative information out to the public. The issues raised were "very, very" sensitive and for the first time gave Tongan people some idea of what was happening in their government. In 1983 he got a warning from the radio board and in January 1985, after a particularly contentious Christmas show, the programme was shut down.

Undaunted, in 1986 Pohiva started the independent newspaper Kele'a. Since the newspaper launched it has been the target of more than 40 cases of defamation launched by the monarchy and members of the government. In 1987 Pohiva was elected to parliament as a people's representative and he has stayed there for 24 years.

Pohiva said the king had to respond to the riots. He had two options – to continue to rule the country and feel his safety increasingly threatened, or to surrender some or all of his power.

"I'm happy, I'm glad, but it's time for some young people to take over – we still have an undemocratic element."

Pacific expert Ratuva said the few weeks after the election would be crucial. "It's a learning process like any under new democracy. There are going to be a lot of challenges – like issues of corruption – those things cannot be solved overnight."


The Tongan people, whose islands were nicknamed the Friendly Islands by Captain Cook in 1773, appear to have a relaxed way of life. Driving at 30km/h on the potholed roads feels like you are racing, walk any faster than a slow lope and you are rushing unnecessarily, speak loudly or quickly and you feel like you will be waking up the neighbours.

It is also a nation of smiles. Walk into any house and you will hear the giggles before you see where they are coming from. Children wave at you as you drive past and yell "bye", even before they have said hello; and even those in abject poverty grin at each other at the sight of a "palagi" picking their way through the mud and dust. Here dogs and pigs are just almost as common as the 60,000 people who inhabit the mostly flat main island. They could do with pig crossing signs on most of the island's roads as many a grumpy sow competes with traffic.

From dawn until dusk, the rhythmic banging of wooden mallets on tapa cloth can be heard throughout the main island of Tongatapu. The women, at home with the children, add to the family's kitty by making traditional handicrafts such as the tapa cloth – made from the bark of a mulberry tree and painted with natural dyes from either the koka or tongo sap – or mats made from weaving the shredded leaves of the pandanus tree. The men bring in food by working the days in plantations and the elderly people spend their days sheltering in the shade of of the island's many mangrove trees. In the early evening, young, fit men play volleyball on a dusty field in the fading light and children line up at the stores which dot the main road and choose their treat. The only obvious sign of the western world are the dozens of Digicel signs hanging on the outside of the stores telling people to "top up here". But Tongans are desperate for work. Unemployed men sit in circles in their villages, drinking kava, as they watch some of the lucky ones build a new church. Parliamentary candidate Posesi Bloomfield said young Tongans often did not want to work in the traditional occupations of horticulture and trades, but in "town". His education meant he could work almost anywhere in the world, but he wanted to help Tonga.

Up until June this year, the country's biggest revenue stream, remittances (where Tongans overseas send money back to their family), had fallen by up to 20% because of unemployment and hard times in feeder countries such as New Zealand and the US. Remittances are worth about $200 million to Tongans annually. Politician Clive Edwards said this was having an impact on society: "There are more crimes and more problems."

The Sunday Star-Times' trip to Tonga was supported by the Pacific Co-operation Foundation. The Pacific Co-operation Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation focused on improving the economic and social development of the Pacific.

Sunday Star Times