Tonga’s constitutional monarchy has featured a prime minister backed by a mostly elected parliament since 2010. However, the king retains important powers, including the authority to veto legislation, dissolve the parliament, and appoint judicial officials. While civil liberties are generally protected, ongoing problems include political pressure on the state broadcaster and land laws that discriminate against women.
- In December, Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Sione Vuna Fa’otusia resigned after signaling his support for an impending vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa. The no-confidence motion was based on seven allegations of wrongdoing against Tu’i’onetoa, mostly involving government spending.
- Police enforced public health restrictions as a part of the state of emergency declared in March in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. By April, 568 people had been arrested for breaching lockdown rules. The enforced restrictions were implemented even though there were no confirmed cases of the coronavirus throughout the year, according to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO).
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Though the monarch is no longer the chief executive authority, he retains significant powers, including the ability to veto legislation and dissolve the parliament. King ’Aho’eitu Tupou VI came to the throne in 2012 and is known to hold more conservative views than his late brother and predecessor, George Tupou V.
The prime minister, who chooses the cabinet, is formally appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the parliament. Veteran democracy campaigner ’Akilisi Pōhiva who initially took office in 2014, died in office in September 2019 after a long illness; he was succeeded by finance minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa, who formed a cabinet that included commoners and members of the nobility. In December 2020, members of Parliament initiated a vote of no-confidence procedure against Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa, the vote for which would be held in January 2021.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The unicameral Legislative Assembly (Fale Alea) consists of 17 members who are directly elected by commoners, nine noble members elected by their peers, and up to four additional members whom the prime minister may appoint to the cabinet from outside the parliament and who hold their seats ex officio. The speaker is appointed from among the noble members on the recommendation of the assembly.
In the 2017 snap election, Pōhiva and his supporters in the loosely affiliated Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands won 14 of the 17 popularly elected seats, a sizeable gain from their previous share.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The Electoral Commission administers elections competently and fairly, though the framework for parliamentary elections falls short of universal suffrage due to the reservation of nine seats for the nobility.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
A formal party system has yet to develop, and all candidates technically run as independents in their single-member constituencies. Nevertheless, there are no major restrictions on political competition, and in practice politicians have begun to form loose partisan affiliations. Parliamentarians are also known to shift their allegiances; after former prime minister Pōhiva’s death in September 2019, four lawmakers that were associated with the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands defected to the Peoples’ Party, including founder Tu’i’onetoa, effectively leaving the former in opposition by year’s end. In April 2020, there were reports of further schisms in the Democratic Party because of the failure to arrange an orderly transition of the leadership after Pōhiva’s death. The Democrats supported the motion to initiate a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa, scheduled for January 2021. The outcome of that vote, if it takes place, could be influenced by the absence of some members of Parliament who are unable to return to Tonga due to COVID-19-related border restrictions.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Rival coalitions led by Pōhiva’s popularly elected allies and more conservative politicians of the nobility have alternated in government in recent years. Before Pōhiva took office in 2014, a member of the nobility, Lord Tu’ivakanō, served as prime minister. Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa governs with the support of popularly elected parliamentarians along with members of the nobility in Parliament.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
The monarchy, the nobility, and the country’s churches exert considerable political influence, but this has not prevented majority support for prodemocracy candidates in recent elections.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Women have the same formal political rights as men, and 15 women ran for seats in the 2017 parliamentary election, but only two won office—an increase from zero in the previous legislature. Cultural biases tend to discourage women’s political participation, and women cannot inherit noble titles, meaning the seats reserved for nobility in the parliament are effectively reserved for men. Ethnic minorities face similar obstacles, though the population is mostly homogeneous, and many members of the small Chinese minority have been able to obtain citizenship and its associated political rights.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
The elected prime minister and his cabinet largely control the formulation and implementation of government policy, but the king continues to rely on a privy council—whose members he appoints himself—for advice regarding the use of his constitutional powers. The Privy Council operates like a shadow government, facilitating a continuing political role for the monarch.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Corruption and abuse of office are serious problems. While public officials and leaders of state-owned companies are sometimes held to account for bribery and other malfeasance, anticorruption mechanisms are generally weak and lacking in resources.
In 2018, Lord Tu’ivakanō was charged with money laundering, perjury, and bribery in a scandal over the sale of passports. Tu’ivakanō appealed for the charges to be dismissed, but the Supreme Court rejected those efforts in October 2019. In April 2020, Tu’ivakanō received a two-year suspended sentence for perjury—he allegedly made false statements about issuing illegal passports to Chinese nationals—and was fined for owning firearms and ammunition without a license. However, upon filing an appeal, Tu’ivakanō was acquitted of the perjury charges in November 2020, after an Appeal Court found that he had not intended to deceive the public. Tu’ivakanō’s lost the appeal of the charges for possession of a firearm without a license.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
Tonga does not have a law to guarantee public access to government information, which can be difficult to obtain in practice, and officials are not legally obliged to disclose their assets and income. The government has at times resisted public scrutiny of pending policies or auditor general’s reports. Nevertheless, the parliament generally operates openly, and the media and civil society are typically able to monitor its proceedings and comment on legislation.
In June 2020, the government announced plans to set up a new National Security and Information Office, in coordination with the police and with ministries in New Zealand and Australia, reportedly to “protect the security of the Tongan people.” Critics have claimed that the real objective is to prevent leaks of government information.
In August 2020, media professionals reported that the Ministry of Communication had instituted eight new regulations in May—including a $2,000 Tonga Pa’anga ($867) fine for publishing or broadcasting vaguely defined “sensitive information”—without informing the media industry. The regulations were passed with neither consultation with key stakeholders nor debate in parliament.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, and a variety of news outlets operate independently, including online. However, politicians have a history of exerting pressure on the media in response to critical coverage.
In May 2020, the Ministry of Communication imposed new regulations that include fines for publishing or broadcasting “sensitive information,” a term that is vaguely defined. Journalists argued that the law enables the government to pressure and prevent media outlets and social media users from raising sensitive political issues and critiquing the government. King Tupou VI has a history of supporting media censorship, dating back to his time as prime minister from 2000 to 2006.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Constitutional protections for religious freedom are generally upheld in practice. Religious groups are not required to register, but those that do receive various benefits. There are some restrictions on commercial activity on Sundays in keeping with a constitutional recognition of the Christian sabbath. Policy guidelines from the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) bar broadcasts of preaching outside the “mainstream Christian tradition,” though this has reportedly not been strictly enforced.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally unrestricted. While there have been reports of self-censorship to avoid friction with the government in the past, no incidents of political interference have been reported in recent years. Tonga hosts one of the regional campuses of the University of the South Pacific as well as the late Tongan scholar Futa Helu’s ‘Atenisi Institute, which offers tertiary courses. In 2018, Christ’s University, which is owned by the Tokaikolo Church and opened in 2015, became Tonga’s first locally owned university to be registered and accredited.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
The government is not known to monitor personal communications. Though Tongans are generally able to discuss political issues without reprisal, critics saw the May 2020 media regulations as enabling the government to pressure social media users so that they would not raise sensitive political issues. The government began discussing controls over social media after threats were allegedly made against King Tupou IV and his family.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of assembly, and demonstrations generally remain peaceful. Political protests in 2006 degenerated into violent riots, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency that lasted until early 2011.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have not reported harassment or other restrictions by the authorities. A number of different laws govern the registration processes for civil society groups, but they are not considered onerous.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers have the legal right to organize in trade unions, but implementing regulations have never been issued, meaning the country’s various de facto unions generally operate as associations. Tonga joined the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2016.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
The king retains authority over judicial appointments and dismissals. The Judicial Appointments and Discipline Panel, a committee of the privy council, provides advice on appointments, including for the lord chancellor, who has responsibility for administering the courts. The king in privy council has final jurisdiction over cases in the land court relating to hereditary estates and titles.
The judiciary is regarded as largely independent, but the royally appointed attorney general has previously been accused of interfering with judicial rulings. Broader judicial reforms that would have increased the cabinet’s influence over judicial appointments were adopted by the parliament in 2014, but the king never gave his assent.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Due process provisions and safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention are typically respected by the authorities. However, there is no mechanism to guarantee access to counsel for indigent defendants.
The police commissioner, Stephen Caldwell, is a New Zealander. The Police Act of 2010 gives control over the appointment of the police commissioner to the king’s privy council, which has raised tensions with elected officials.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Prison conditions are generally adequate, police brutality is rare, and crime rates remain relatively low. A number of police officers accused of misconduct have been investigated, dismissed, or convicted of crimes in recent years. However, rising public concern has focused on problems including the country’s role as a transit point for drug trafficking, drug-related petty crime, and organized crime affecting the Chinese community. Since 2015, Police Commissioner Stephen Caldwell has suspended 64 officers from their duties either for criminal offences or other disciplinary matters. In November 2020, Caldwell released a statement that 21 officers had been dismissed, due to unauthorized absences, failure to complete recruitment requirements, and sexual harassment.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution includes a general provision for equality before the law, and this is upheld in many respects. However, women still face some forms of discrimination, including in land and inheritance laws and with regard to employment in practice. Same-sex sexual activity is criminalized, but the ban is not actively enforced.
Continued bias and instances of crime against members of the Chinese minority have been reported, though nothing approaching the scale of the 2006 riots—which targeted Chinese-owned businesses—has occurred since the state of emergency was lifted in 2011.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
There are no significant constraints on freedom of movement or the ability to change one’s place of residence or employment. Police enforced public health restrictions that were part of the state of emergency declared in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even though there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the country throughout the year. By April, 568 people had been arrested for breaching the lockdown rules.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The legal framework generally supports private business activity. However, individuals cannot own or sell land outright, as all land is technically the property of the king. Land rights, once granted by nobles or directly by the crown through an allotment system, can only be leased or inherited, and while women can obtain leases, they are not eligible to receive or inherit land allotments.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are typically respected. However, domestic violence remains a problem despite state and civil society efforts to prevent it, and girls as young as 15—the legal minimum age for marriage with parental permission—are sometimes compelled by their parents to marry.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
The population generally has access to economic opportunities and protection from abusive working conditions, though enforcement of labor laws is affected by resource limitations, and some employers have violated workers’ rights. While there is no law specifically regulating child labor, any such work typically entails informal participation in family agriculture and fishing. In August 2020, Tonga signed the ILO’s Convention 182, on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.
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