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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- ‘Akilisi Pōhiva was formally reappointed as prime minister in January, after his parliamentary supporters won snap elections in November 2017 and voted him back into office that December. The snap elections followed a controversial dissolution of the parliament by the king.
- Former prime minister Lord Tu’ivakanō was charged in March with perjury, bribery, and money laundering in a scandal over the sale of passports.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 30 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 9 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The king is no longer the chief executive authority, but he retains significant powers, including the ability to veto legislation and dissolve the parliament. The current monarch, King 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 king on the recommendation of the parliament. Prime Minister Pōhiva first took office in 2014 after that year’s elections. The king dissolved the parliament in 2017 after consulting with the speaker at the time, Lord Tu’ivakanō, who accused the prime minister of seeking to further reduce the monarch’s constitutional authority. However, after snap elections later that year resulted in a victory for Pōhiva’s supporters, the lawmakers returned him to the premiership, with the king formalizing the appointment in January 2018. There was continuing pressure from opponents during the year to impeach the prime minister on the grounds of poor performance and lack of transparency.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The unicameral Fale Alea, or Legislative Assembly, 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 elections, 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.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
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.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
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 such as Pōhiva’s Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Rival coalitions led by Pōhiva’s popularly elected allies and more conservative noble politicians have alternated in government in recent years. Before Pōhiva took office in 2014, Lord Tu’ivakanō was the prime minister.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
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.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Women have the same formal political rights as men, and 15 women ran for seats in the 2017 parliamentary elections, 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 noble seats in the parliament are effectively reserved for men. Participation by ethnic minorities is subject to 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.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
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.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
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. An ombudsman was appointed in late 2016, but the post of anticorruption commissioner has been vacant since its creation in 2007. In March 2018, Lord Tu’ivakanō was charged with money laundering, perjury, and bribery in a scandal over the sale of passports. His case remained pending at year’s end.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
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.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 49 / 60 (+4)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (+2)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
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. Pōhiva has repeatedly complained about reporting by the state-run Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC), accusing the radio and television outlet of becoming “an enemy of government” in 2017. A series of leadership changes at TBC followed later that year, raising widespread concerns among press freedom advocates.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
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. The TBC’s policy guidelines bar broadcasts of preaching outside the “mainstream Christian tradition,” though this has reportedly not been strictly enforced.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4 (+1)
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 October 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.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no recent reports of improper state interference with education.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4 (+1)
There are no major constraints on Tongans’ ability to discuss politics and other topics in person or on social media. The government is not known to monitor personal communications.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no reports of significant constraints on the expression of personal views in recent years.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12 (+1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4 (+1)
The constitution protects freedom of assembly, and demonstrations, though rare, 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. However, there have been no similar incidents in the years since.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to the lack of any protest-related violence or state restrictions on assembly over the past several years.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations 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.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
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 in 2016, though it has yet to ratify the organization’s conventions on labor standards.
F. RULE OF LAW: 12 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
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 prime minister has accused the royally appointed attorney general of interfering with judicial rulings, and has pressed for reforms that would bring the attorney general into the orbit of the elected government. 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.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
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. Successive ministers of police, as well as Prime Minister Pōhiva, have sought to obtain control over the appointment.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
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.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
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, and in recent years local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) groups have worked to raise awareness of their cause and lobbied the government to adopt legal reforms.
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.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 16 (+1)
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
There are no significant constraints on freedom of movement or the ability to change one’s place of residence or employment.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
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.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
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.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4 (+1)
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.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because although some employers have imposed exploitative conditions on their workers, acute forms abuse are not believed to be widespread.