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 concerns include official corruption and land laws that discriminate against women.
- Tongan voters went to the polls in November to participate in the country’s fourth general elections since the democratic reforms of 2010. The resulting 26-member parliament included 12 newly elected members.
- Siaosi Sovaleni was chosen as prime minister in December, and he formed a new government that was composed mainly of people’s representatives rather than nobles.
- Tonga’s king had repeatedly expressed his displeasure with the performance of the parliament earlier in the year. In May he questioned the honesty of lawmakers, and in September he criticized a lack of government action in response to the illegal drug trade.
|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 ʻAhoʻeitu 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 ʻAkilisi Pōhiva, who initially took office in 2014, died in 2019 after a long illness; he was succeeded by then finance minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa, who formed a cabinet that included commoners and members of the nobility. The new government survived a motion of no confidence in January 2021, 13 votes to 9.
Following the November 2021 general elections, a 16-member majority in the new parliament chose Siaosi Sovaleni as prime minister. He defeated a candidate supported by outgoing prime minister Tuʻiʻonetoa. The new 12-member cabinet included only one member from the nobility, who served as minister for lands and natural resources.
|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 in single-member districts, nine noble members elected by their peers across five districts, 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. All candidates technically run as independents. The speaker is appointed from among the noble members on the recommendation of the assembly.
Seventy-five candidates registered to contest the November 2021 general elections, which were the country’s fourth since the democratic reforms of 2010. Nine of the 17 people’s representatives elected were new members, as were three of the nine nobles’ representatives. No women were elected.
|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|
There are no major restrictions on political competition, and despite the lack of formal political parties, politicians have begun to form loose partisan affiliations in practice. Lawmakers are also known to shift their allegiances; after former prime minister Pōhiva’s death in 2019, four lawmakers who were associated with the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands defected to the new Tonga People’s Party, including founder Tuʻiʻonetoa, effectively leaving Democratic Party in opposition by year’s end. During the January 2021 no-confidence vote, nobles were reluctant to cross the floor to join the Democratic Party in voting against the government, reportedly fearing further encroachments on their powers.
|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 from the nobility have alternated in government in recent years, though Tu’i’onetoa governed with support from a mixture of popularly elected and noble members. Sovaleni’s election as prime minister in December 2021 represented another change of government, as his only opponent, ʻAisake Eke, was backed by the outgoing prime minister.
|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.
In the months leading up to the November 2021 elections, Tonga’s king repeatedly expressed his displeasure with the performance of the parliament. In May, at the opening of a legislative session, he questioned lawmakers’ honesty and transparency and accused them of failing to implement adequate policies on health, education, and the economy; the parliament responded by suspending the usual live radio broadcast of the debate following the king’s speech. In September the king criticized officials for lack of action in response to the illegal drug trade, and in October he addressed a national symposium on the drug crisis, potentially signaling an increase in the monarch’s political involvement.
|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, but no women won seats in the November 2021 parliamentary elections, down from two in the previous legislature. One woman was appointed in December to serve as minister of foreign affairs and tourism in the new 12-member cabinet. 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.
Members of ethnic minority groups 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 the 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 June 2021, Minister for Infrastructure and Tourism ‘Akosita Lavulavu and her husband, ‘Etuate Lavulavu, himself a former minister, were convicted of fraud for falsifying student documents to secure $250,000 from the government for a private school they operated. They were sentenced to six years in prison in July, and an appeal was pending at year’s end. The prime minister notably continued to defend the couple after their conviction.
|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, and in his May 2021 speech to the parliament, the king alleged a lack of transparency surrounding government ministries and state-owned companies. The parliament generally operates openly, and the media and civil society are typically able to monitor its proceedings and comment on legislation, though lawmakers drew criticism for preventing a live radio broadcast of their debate following the king’s speech.
|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 2020, the Ministry of Communications imposed new regulations that prescribe fines for the publication or broadcast of “sensitive information,” a term that is vaguely defined. Journalists argued that the rules could enable the government to pressure media outlets and social media users and prevent them from raising sensitive political issues or critiquing the government.
In December 2020, the parliament passed a law on cyberbullying known as the Electronic Communication Abuse Offences Act, to which the king gave his formal assent in February 2021. The law called for fines and prison terms of up to three years for the use of a communication platform to abuse, harass, or otherwise harm another person, raising concerns that it could be enforced in a way that restricted journalistic activity or personal expression.
|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.
|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. Among other higher educational institutions, 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, and Christ’s University, which is owned by the Tokaikolo Church. In September 2021, the parliament passed legislation to merge existing publicly owned tertiary institutions into Tonga’s first national university.
|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 2020 media regulations and the cyberbullying law signed in February 2021 as tools that could be used by authorities to limit expression on sensitive topics.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of assembly, and demonstrations in recent years have generally proceeded peacefully.
|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, but the civil society sector in Tonga remains relatively small and has limited influence.
|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. Related issues such as collective bargaining, strikes, and antiunion discrimination by employers are not specifically addressed by law. 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, a New Zealander, retired in April 2021. His replacement, Lord Fielakepa, served in an acting role for the remainder of the year. 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, public concern has increasingly focused on security problems including organized crime affecting the Chinese community, drug-related petty crime, and the country’s growing role as a destination and production point—not just a transit point—for illegal drug trafficking.
|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, though the ban is not actively enforced. The May 2021 murder of an LGBT+ rights activist prompted renewed calls for a repeal of the law; the man suspected of committing the murder pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
|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. Beginning in March 2020, police enforced temporary movement restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19; the first confirmed case in the country was reported in October 2021, though there had been no community transmission by year’s end.
|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. The law does not recognize same-sex marriages or unions.
|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.
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