Author: Jon Fraenkel, Victoria University of Wellington
In a perfunctory decree on 25 August, Tonga’s King George Tupou VI exercised his constitutional right to dissolve his country’s parliament. He gave no reason, but acknowledged having received the advice of the speaker, Lord Tu’ivakano. Yet this was no ordinary dissolution to bring a peaceful end to the life of a parliament. The purpose, as Tu’ivakano expanded, was to terminate a government that had allegedly ‘trespassed on the King’s powers’.
The South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, with around 103,000 inhabitants, has only recently become a democratic state, and only partially so. It was unified in the mid-19th century under King George Tupou I, who cleverly adapted the trappings of a European-style monarchy to ward off pressures for colonial annexation. Close neighbours, like Fiji and Samoa, were less fortunate and fell respectively under British and German rule.
The result was a marriage of imported legal arrangements and Tongan tradition. The 1875 constitution allowed the king to choose the prime minister and cabinet, who sat in the legislature alongside representatives of the nobles and Popularly Elected politicians. Parliament itself had little clout, but back then neither did colonial legislatures in Fiji or Samoa.
Pressure for change built from the 1980s, led by ‘Akilisi Pohiva, a civil servant, whose pro-democracy movement chalked up big victories in elections on the largest island, Tongatapu. In 2010, the former king Tupou V — the late brother of the present king — divested himself of critical powers. The 17 Popularly Elected Members in the 26-member parliament now determine who forms the government.
Dramatic as those reforms may have been, they left key bits of the old order intact, and ordinary folk, widely called ‘commoners’, perceive that little has changed. Nobles still select nine parliamentarians and the king retains powers over judicial appointments and veto rights over legislation. The king is advised by a shadowy privy council, which at times commands a de facto authority close to that of cabinet, although its de jure powers are only advisory. GDP growth remains sluggish and islanders remain dependent on remittances from the Tongan diaspora. Tonga has the world’s second highest shares of remittances — around 30.2 per cent of GDP in 2016.
At the first election under the new arrangements in 2010, the nine nobles struck an alliance with conservative representatives from the northern Vava’u Islands to form a lacklustre government headed by Tu’ivakano (who has since become speaker). Only since 2014 has Tonga had its first majority popularly elected government headed by a ‘commoner’ prime minister, Pohiva.
But Pohiva (now 76 years old) has struggled to make the transition from decades on the opposition benches. Like some of his royal predecessors, he has an unfortunate proclivity for lashing out against the media and for embarking on ill-conceived development schemes, such as the poorly planned golf course on reclaimed land at Popua on Tongatapu. Key former allies, such as former media advisor Kalafi Moala, have turned against their one-time champion, accusing him of nepotism and going soft on ministerial corruption.
While Pohiva survived a no confidence vote in March 2017 — by 14 votes to 10 — this was mainly because the popularly elected members of parliament failed to come up with a viable alternative. The members could also anticipate an impending leadership change since, at that point, Pohiva had promised to retire ahead of the next elections, which were then scheduled for November 2018. Still, the failure of popularly elected parliamentarians to take action in March represented a lack of nerve and dangerously paved the way for the royal dissolution. Pohiva also laid that groundwork when, in March, he accused parliament of ‘trespassing on authority’, and said he recognised only the powers of the king, cabinet and people to dismiss a sitting prime minister.
Pohiva’s unpopular decision to cancel Tonga’s hosting of the 2019 Pacific Games, while keeping in place new taxes raised to pay its costs, was among the justifications set out by Tu’ivakano for advising the king to dissolve parliament. Other reasons mentioned were incursions into royal powers of appointment of the police chief and attorney general and ‘weaning away’ the ‘powers of the king in privy council’.
Yet King George Tupou VI’s action was hasty and the Privy Council’s advice unwise. The prime minister’s alleged encroachments — if this they were — were themselves potentially subject to the royal veto, though this would better have been used more cautiously. Transitions from royal rule are best handled by allowing powers of veto and assent to wither by convention, and by resisting the temptation to step in whenever the popularly elected members fail to assume responsibility. Pohiva, who reacted to the dissolution by sacking both the deputy prime minister and the finance minister and accusing them of conspiring against him, was already a lame duck prime minister serving out his last months before retirement. The royal dissolution may have brought forward the choice of a new leader, but it has done so in a way that weakens Tonga’s fragile new democracy.
Jon Fraenkel is Professor of Comparative Politics, Victoria University of Wellington.