Tonga | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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Parliamentary elections were held in March 2005, and for the first time "people's representatives" were appointed to the cabinet. A new consumption tax was introduced in April, sparking the country's first public workers' strike. When neither the government nor the king appeared responsive to negotiating with the workers, demands for wage increases expanded to include calls for greater government accountability and democracy.

Tonga consists of 169 islands that King George Tupou I united under his rule in 1845. The country became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. In 1970, Tonga gained independence; it is a member of the Commonwealth and the only remaining Polynesian monarchy.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV has reigned since 1945. The crown prince, at 58 years old, remains single and childless. The February 2004 passing of Prince Fatafehi Alaivahamama'o Tuku'aho, the king's second son, puts Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, the king's third son and youngest child, in line for succession after the crown prince.

Tonga's politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. The first strong show of public support for democratic reform was the election of prodemocracy candidates for seven of the nine directly elected seats reserved for commoners in the March 2002 parliamentary elections. Soon afterwards, the government initiated some public and economic sector reforms, although critics charged that they were insufficient. A prodemocracy advocate from within the monarchy is the king's nephew, Prince Tu'ipelehake, who has openly called on Australia to pressure Tonga to expand democracy. His proposal for a referendum to allow the popular election of all representatives won narrow approval in the parliament in October 2004.

In the March 17, 2005, parliamentary election, a record 64 candidates competed for nine seats in the 30-member parliament, and 65,000 people registered to vote (up from 59,000 in the March 2002 election). There were no reports of serious fraud or other voting irregularities. For the first time, elected representatives served in the cabinet; the prime minister appointed two "people's representatives" to head the labor and forestry ministries. By-elections were held in May to replace legislators who were appointed to the cabinet. Prince Tu'ipelehake won a noble's seat, and former minister of police Clive Edwards won a people's seat. Edwards, who had broken with the government in 2004 when he openly called for restraints on the powers of the crown prince, was dismissed in August 2004 for allegedly plotting a coup. The king reappointed his third son, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, as prime minister.

A new 15 percent consumption tax, which applies to all persons and organizations except the Palace Office, was introduced on April 4, 2005. This development sparked Tonga's first ever public workers' strike in July. The striking civil servants were joined by 1,400 teachers. The strikers' demand for salaries increases of up to 80 percent was rejected by the government. About 10,000 people-among them Prince Tu'ipelehake-marched to the Royal Palace to petition for the king's intervention to settle the strike and expand democracy; the government ignored their demands. During the fifth week of the strike, one of the king's palaces was burned down and 15 students were arrested for vandalizing school property, which they claimed to do in the name of supporting their teachers. In another march on September 6, demonstrators called not only for a salary hike, but also for the dismissal of the prime minister and his cabinet, for the creation of a commission to review the constitution within 12 months and make the government more open and accountable, and for the return of government assets claimed by the royals and nobles. The king ordered an independent audit to review salaries of public servants. Eventually, workers accepted a 12.5 percent increase, and almost all returned to work in September.

In a special session of parliament, the Speaker refused to put the people's petition for greater democracy on the legislative agenda on the grounds that there were issues more pressing than democracy. Prodemocracy elected representatives responded by saying that they would hold their own unofficial referendum.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Tonga cannot change their government democratically. The king, 33 hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners dominate politics and the economy through their majority in parliament and their substantial land holdings. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV appoints his cabinet without election and for life terms, and the cabinet holds 12 of 30 seats in the unicameral legislature. Another nine parliament seats are reserved for the nobles, who are chosen by their peers, and cabinet members and nobles usually vote as one bloc. The remaining nine representatives are chosen through general elections. The king appoints the prime minister and presides over the Privy Council, which makes major policy decisions. Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, the king's third son, was appointed prime minister in 2000 and again in 2005.

The number of seats held by prominent commoners has been shrinking in recent years in favor of prodemocracy candidates. While the prodemocracy movement began in 1992, the election of seven prodemocracy movement members to fill nine of the people's seats in the legislature in 2002 was the movement's first major victory. In September 2004, prodemocracy representatives proposed a referendum on directly electing all 30 representatives, while still allowing the king to appoint the prime minister and his cabinet from those elected. The parliament rejected this proposal but approved a similar one proposed by Prince Tu'ipelehake. The continuing success of prodemocracy advocates in the March 2005 parliamentary elections and the appointment of two people's representatives to the cabinet marked another milestone. In April, the People's Democratic Party was launched, and Tesina Fuko was elected its first president.

Corruption is a major source of public dissatisfaction with the government and a hindrance to economic growth. The royals, the nobles, and a few people with connections to these political elites use state assets for their personal benefit, from taking land and granting themselves monopoly licenses to securing government loans and guarantees. In 2005, Crown Prince Tupoutoa Tupouto'a attempted to establish an airline monopoly, and about 50 people demonstrated in March to protest the sale of the state electrical company to the crown prince (and a subsequent price hike). The government appears unwilling to address these problems; in July, the parliament temporarily suspended two prodemocracy elected members from attending sessions for allegedly disrupting legislative proceedings with their questions about official corruption and abuses. Tonga was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press, the government has a long history of suppressing criticism in the media. The government owns shares in several private media companies and runs the country's television and radio stations. In 1996, the government banned New Zealand journalist Michael Field from entering the country because of his critical reports on the royals and the government. In December 2003, the government approved amendments to the constitution that-along with the controversial Newspaper Act and Media Operators Act-allow the government to regulate all publications in the kingdom, including foreign publications that circulate in Tonga. The Newspaper Act requires licenses for publishers, sellers, and importers of newspapers, with violations carrying a $10,000 fine or imprisonment for a maximum of one year. The Media Operators Act limits to 20 percent foreign ownership of publications published in Tonga. The government has also repeatedly tried to silence the Tonga Times, a vocal critic of the government, banning circulation of the paper and arresting its owner in February 2004 for entering the kingdom with 20 copies of the paper. Under the Media Operators Act, the Tonga Times and the opposition's Ko e Kele'a were both denied licenses. In October 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the Media Operators Act, Newspaper Act, and parts of the constitutional amendment restricting freedom of speech were void and invalid. In 2005, the election of prodemocracy candidates to the parliament, along with public pressure for accountability, have resulted in more lively political news reporting in the press, and the government lifted its 1996 ban on the journalist Field. Internet diffusion in Tonga is limited by cost and technical access challenges, but there have been no political attempts to restrict internet access.

Freedom of religion is generally respected in this predominantly Christian society. However, the Tongan Broadcasting Commission requires that any references to religion on radio and television must conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. As such, there are limits on broadcasts about non-Christian religions as well as those, such as Mormonism, not considered mainstream. There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom, but academics practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.

Freedom of assembly and association is generally respected for groups not involved in politics and not critical of government policies. However, the government appears increasingly unable or unwilling to crack down on protestors and marchers. Many civil society organizations are active in promoting education, public health, and children's and women's welfare. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.

The judiciary is generally fair, efficient, and independent of the king and the executive branch. Traditional elders in villages also exercise considerable authority and frequently adjudicate local disputes. Suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. In an attempt to deny its critics another favorable court ruling, the Tongan parliament abolished the use of the British Civil Liberty Law by Tongan courts as part of a parcel of bills in December 2003; this law had been used to cover matters, like adoption, not addressed by Tongan law. Prisons are spartan, but there are no reports of prisoner abuse.

Citizens enjoy freedom of travel, movement, and migration. Immigration laws were tightened after the illegal sale of Tongan passports (particularly to persons from China and Taiwan) became a sore point in bilateral relations with major aid donors. Relations between Tongans and Chinese immigrants have worsened in recent years as evidenced by attacks against Chinese-owned shops.

Women enjoy equal access to education and health and face fairly equal treatment in employment. Women hold several senior government posts, including cabinet positions, and the majority of commissioned officers in the police are women. However, the support of nobility is important for women to rise to positions of leadership. Women can lease, but not own, land. Domestic violence against women is not uncommon.