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In Tonga’s April 2008 Legislative Assembly elections, prodemocracy candidates took six of the nine directly elected seats. Lawmakers passed legislation in July that established a commission to determine necessary reforms for the 2010 legislative elections, including the role of the monarch and the composition and selection of the legislature. The king also ceded power to the prime minister in July on all daily affairs.
Tonga consists of 169 islands that King George Tupou I united under his rule in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900, gaining independence in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV ruled from 1945 to 2006. His son, Crown Prince Tupouto’a, assumed the title King Siaosi Tupou V in 2006 and was officially crowned in August 2008 in a ceremony that cost $2 million.
Politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. Prodemocracy candidates were first elected to the parliament in 2002, winning seven of nine directly elected seats for commoners. Prodemocracy candidates again won the majority of commoners’ seats in the 2005 elections, and for the first time, two “people’s representatives” joined the cabinet. Growing public demand for political reform pushed the king in 2005 to approve the formation of a constitutional review committee chaired by Prince Tu’ipelehake, his nephew and a prominent democracy advocate. The prince was killed in a car accident in 2006, however, which was a major blow to the prodemocracy movement.
In October 2006, the National Committee for Political Reform submitted its report to the government, recommending a parliament with 17 members elected by the people and 9 by the 33 nobles, and a prime minister and cabinet chosen from among the lawmakers. The government offered a counterproposal under which the king would retain the power to appoint the prime minister and cabinet and include individuals from outside the legislature. Prodemocracy activists rejected this counterproposal and launched a protest on November 17 that quickly escalated into a riot that left several people dead, hundreds injured, and 80 percent of the capital’s business district in ruins. The king declared a state of emergency, and repeated renewals kept it in place at the end of 2008.
Nearly 700 people were arrested in connection with the riots. Several prominent prodemocracy activists and five lawmakers alleged to have instigated the riots were charged with sedition. In April 2008, the government said it would create a “Royal Watchmen” unit for security in the capital, and a New Zealand national, Chris Kelley, was named the new police commissioner in July.
In the April 2008 legislative elections, 71 candidates, including 8 women, competed for 9 elected seats. The Human Rights and Democracy Movement won 4 seats, the People’s Democratic Party captured 2 seats, and independents took the remaining 3 popularly elected seats. Voter turnout was 48 percent, and there were no reports of serious fraud or irregularities.
The new parliament passed legislation in July 2008 to establish a five-member Constitution and Electoral Commission to determine necessary reforms for the 2010 legislative elections, including the role of the monarch, the privy council, and the composition and selection of the legislature. Former chief justice Gordon Ward was named chairman of the commission. Also in July, the king ceded power on all day-to-day affairs to the prime minister and will receive guidance from the prime minister on major decisions.
Tonga is heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans overseas. In 2008, new customs duty tariff and tax systems were adopted to prepare Tonga for entry to the World Trade Organization. The rebuilding of the capital’s commercial center, much of which was destroyed during the 2006 riots, began in November with significant Chinese government assistance and private contractor involvement.
Tonga is not an electoral democracy. Following the 2006 riots, talks between the king and prodemocracy advocates resulted in an agreement, which will be enacted with the 2010 parliamentary elections, in which the unicameral Legislative Assembly will consist of 17 popularly elected representatives, 9 nobles elected by their peers, and 2 governors and 2 ministers appointed by the king. Until then, the parliament will have 9 popularly elected members, 9 nobles elected by their peers, 10 members of the privy council, and 2 governors selected by the king. The king appoints the prime minister and the cabinet; Fred Sevele, the prime minister, was appointed in 2006 and is the first commoner to hold the position.
There are several budding political parties, and prodemocracy candidates typically align with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which is not a formal party.
Widespread official corruption is a source of public discontent. The royals, the nobles, and their top associates have allegedly used state assets for their personal benefit. The government’s practices of not publicly releasing draft budgets and bills and charging a fee to obtain court papers restrict transparency and public involvement in policy decisions. Tonga was ranked 138 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom, the government has a history of suppressing media criticism. A Department of Information, formed at the end of 2007, oversees all media reporting. Reporters and editors of the pro-democracy newspaper Kele’a have faced defamation and sedition charges for articles critical of the monarchy and government officials; some of these have resulted in fines for the newspaper. In the run-up to the 2008 parliamentary elections, the government pressured the state-owned Tongan Broadcasting Commission to pull a series of paid political advertisements by candidates competing for the legislature’s popularly elected seats. Nevertheless, letters to the editor and commentaries critical of the government appear regularly in all newspapers, including those owned by the state or in which the state owns shares. The government does not restrict access to the internet, and the number of users is growing rapidly.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. Academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld for apolitical or uncritical groups, but those engaging in protests and marches have reportedly suffered from government harassment. The state of emergency in force since the 2006 riots restricts public assembly in the capital. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated. In January 2008, government workers who had been fired for signing a petition to protest their unlawful dismissal associated with a major public service strike in 2006 filed suit against the government; no decisions in the case had been reached at year’s end.
The judiciary is generally independent and efficient, and traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Criminal suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. There are no reports of prisoner abuse.
Tensions between Tongans and ethnic Chinese, the single largest minority group, have worsened in recent years, largely due to resentment stemming from the perceived Chinese domination of the economy.
Women enjoy equal access to education and health care and receive fairly equal treatment in employment. Women hold several senior government jobs, including cabinet positions and the majority of commissioned officer posts in the police force. Nevertheless, women cannot own land, and domestic violence against women is not uncommon.