Tonga | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2011

2011 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Tonga’s political rights rating improved from 5 to 3 due to free and fair parliamentary elections held in November 2010, in which for the first time a majority of seats were filled through universal suffrage and won by prodemocracy candidates.

Tonga adopted a new government structure in April 2010, providing for a majority of the Legislative Assembly’s 26 members to be popularly elected. In free and fair elections held in November, prodemocracy candidates took 12 of the 17 popularly elected seats, though the parliament voted 14 to 12 to elect Lord Tu‘ivakanō over prodemocracy leader Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva as the new prime minister. The state of emergency, in its fifth year, remained in effect throughout 2010.

Tonga consists of 169 islands that King Siaosi 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 Tāufa‘āhau 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 2008.

Politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. The economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans living abroad.
Prodemocracy advocates won a majority of commoners’ seats in the 2002 and 2005 elections. Public demand for political reform pushed the king to approve a constitutional review, though prodemocracy advocates rejected the government’s proposals as too conservative and slow, and launched street protests in 2006 that quickly escalated into violent rioting. After declaring a state of emergency, the king entered into talks with prodemocracy activists. An agreement was finally reached in December 2009, providing for the creation of a new 26-member parliament with 17 popularly elected representatives. In April 2010, the parliament adopted the new government structure.
Attorney General John Cauchi resigned in protest of the king’s right to make judicial appointments in April 2010. The government countered that the king retained this authority under the current constitution. In June, the power to appoint judges was transferred from the Judicial Services Commission to the position of lord chancellor—who would also be chosen by the king—raising questions about the country’s judicial independence.
In September, the government announced that elections would be held on November 25. Tongans residing abroad—who comprise nearly half of the population and whose remittances represent 70 percent of the country’s national income—were effectively prohibited from participating after the Electoral Commission said that ballots could only be cast in person in Tonga. Nevertheless, approximately 90 percent of the 42,000 registered voters cast ballots in the historic November elections. Prodemocracy candidates, under the banner of the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI), won 12 of the 17 commoners’ seats. There were no incidences of violence, and the media had broad access to the polls. The elections were considered free and fair by international and domestic observers, though the emergency laws—now in their fifth year—remained in place. On December 20, the parliament chose Lord Tu‘ivakanō over the DPFI’s Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva as the new prime minister in a vote of 14 to 12.
In September 2009, a domestic inter-island ferry sank and killed 74 people. In February 2010, the ferry’s captain was charged with knowingly sailing an unseaworthy vessel, while the head of the government-owned enterprise that purchased the vessel was charged with perjury. In March, a special inquiry commission found that the government had systematically failed in its purchase of the ferry.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Tonga is an electoral democracy. The unicameral Legislative Assembly has 26 members,   including 17 popularly elected representatives and 9 nobles elected by their peers; all members serve four-year terms. The king retains the power to appoint the chief justice, judges of the court of appeal, and the attorney general on the advice of the privy council. The privy council, whose members are appointed by the king, lost its power to pass legislation following changes to the government structure in 2010. Additionally, the Legislative Assembly—rather than the king—now selects the prime minister.

Prodemocracy candidates have typically aligned with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which is not a formal party. However, new parties formed ahead of the November 2010 elections, including DPFI, the Democratic Labor Party, the Sustainable Nation-Building Party, and the People’s Democratic Party.

Widespread official corruption is a major source of public discontent. The royals, nobles, and their top associates have allegedly used state assets for personal benefit, and transparency and accountability are lacking. Tonga was ranked 101 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, the government has a history of suppressing media criticism. A Department of Information oversees all media reporting. 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. In December 2010, the government terminated the broadcasting license of the privately-owned FM88.1, claiming the decision was prompted by public complaints against the station. Internet access is not restricted, and the number of users has increased despite high costs and lack of infrastructure.

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.

Criticism of the monarchy is not tolerated. In August 2010, a prodemocracy member of parliament, Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva, was suspended for two months after he questioned the government’s financing of improvements to the royal palace in such a poor economy.

Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld. While those engaging in protests and marches have faced government harassment in the past, there were no reported crackdowns on demonstrations by law enforcement officials in 2010. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.

The judiciary is generally independent, and traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Criminal suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. However, a shortage of judges has created serious backlogs; only 2 of 10 magistrate seats had been filled by the end of September 2010. Nobles have increasingly faced scrutiny in society and the courts. In December 2010, two nobles, who had recently been elected to the parliament, were charged with the illegal possession of firearms and drugs. Prisons are basic, and are only lightly guarded, as violent crimes are rare. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse.

Tensions between Tongans and ethnic Chinese have worsened in recent years, largely due to resentment over 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, no women were elected in the 2010 elections, women cannot own land, and domestic violence against women is common. In 2009, the parliament rejected ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, claiming it conflicts with Tongan culture by providing women with land ownership rights and allowing abortion and same-sex marriage.