06 November 2010

Tongan Politics in pictures

Several months ago, a neighbor of ours came over with a question from her high school Tongan history class: define the English word "politics," in Tonga. There was no real equivalent in Tongan, so we deliberated for half an hour, and she went to class the next day with a semi tolerable answer of what politics means in Tonga. She was the only one in the whole class with an answer, including the teacher!

These are exciting times for Tonga. The democratic elections are coming up at the end of this month, the first big step in Tonga's move towards a democracy, rather than a [constitutional] monarchy. In 2006, the former King died, and his son, the current king, formally announced he would be deferring governmental decisions to the Prime Minister.

But in a country where the "coconut wireless" runs efficiently, nearly everything about the coming election is word-of-mouth; no clear charts as to what is actually going to happen. So here's my attempt to explain Tonga becoming a democracy:

Tonga is heavily based on hierarchy and family ties.

Tongan society is strictly stratified into three classes: the King (and royalty), the Nobles, and the Commoners.

Until now, Tonga's political system has stayed essentially the same since 1875, when the constitution was written.

The November 25th elections will nearly double the elected seats in Parliament, and will move the Executive branch from king-appointed to Parliament-appointed. The Judicial branch will stay the same.

The new members of Parliament will most likely be all male at this election.
There is little hope that any of the new MPs are going to be women. Socially, women enjoy high status, and own and operate a majority of businesses in Tonga -- but still cannot own land and are among the minority in church and government leadership. Women were given the right to vote in 1957.

What will happen at the end of the month? The country is waiting to find out.

Pacific - Tonga - Information Paper - NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade http://www.mfat.govt.nz/Countries/Pacific/Tonga.php
Tonga's pro-democracy movement hails assembly reform http://www.rnzi.com/pages/news.php?op=read&id=53125
Politics of Tonga http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Tonga
Pacific Conference of Churches http://www.pcc.org.fj/News.aspx?newsid=99
US Department of State: Tonga http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/16092.htm#political

23 November 2010: Update to Tongan Politics in Pictures

New information has just appeared in the Matangi Tonga Online, a local newspaper, explaining additional changes upcoming in Tonga's democratic elections on the 25th. I had previously said that the Judicial branch will stay the same, but now, information has been released saying that the King made changes to this branch, dismantling a commission that had been put in place to ensure impartiality of the Judiciary. This commission has been
"replaced with a 14-15th century British title of Lord Chancellor, who wwould (sic) recommend to the King who should be appointed as the Chief Justice and the judges of the Supreme Court"     - Matangi Tonga
The Lord Chancellor, replacing the commission, "would not only recommend the appointment of judges but he would also be responsible for the Tonga Defence Services in place of the Minister of Defence," according to one incumbent People's Representative to the Tongan Parliament. 

In summary, this means that the Judiciary, formerly regulated by the commission committed to ensure impartiality, would now be controlled by the Lord Chancellor. This person, appointed by the King, would choose the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court Judges, and serve as the Minister of Defence.

According to the paper, critics of this action are hoping that the Lord Chancellor title will be terminated as soon as the new government is put in place.

Source: Matangi Tonga Online http://www.matangitonga.to/article/tonganews/politics/20101120_tonga_candidates.shtml


  1. Thank you, Elena! I found your overview to be quite illuminating!


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