Last week, Tongans were taken by surprise by a sudden proclamation from the king, Tupou VI, that, following consideration of advice from the Speaker, Parliament was dissolved immediately and commanding fresh elections be held on 16 November, a year ahead of schedule. The move underscored the complications involved in embedding the country’s new democracy.
In 2010 Tonga made a historic switch to a more democratic system, following a process instigated by then King George Tupou V (who reigned 2006-2012). Under his predecessor, King Tupou IV, a pro-democracy movement had grown up, calling for political reform. An increasing tempo of protest had built up, culminating in the tragic riots of 16 November 2006, which occurred despite the new king’s having by then already declared his commitment to democratisation.
The revised constitution, however, retained key powers for the king, including unfettered rights to reject legislation, and to dissolve Parliament at any time (with fresh elections to be held within a year). The king also makes a number of appointments, including the judiciary and a new-style advisory Privy Council which no longer includes members of the executive.
Unlike in established European democratic parliamentary monarchies, royal prerogatives such as the veto power have not been delegated through convention to the executive.
The retention of a substantial (although reduced) proportion of Parliamentary seats for the Nobles’ representatives means it is possible for a Noble to secure the Prime Ministership through the support of his peers plus a small number of “Independent” People’s Representatives: hence Tonga’s first government under the new system was led by Lord Tu’ivakano (now Speaker). After the 2014 election, however, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, Tonga’s veteran pro-democracy campaigner, became Prime Minister after some strategic negotiations with Independents.
Both post-reform governments displayed poor governance and errors of judgement. In the case of Pohiva this included apparent disregard for the rule of law. Despite his long-standing advocacy for transparency, accountability and fighting corruption, he failed to apply these same standards against one of his own Ministers who was found prima facie to be corrupt by a parliamentary committee. Pohiva also alienated many parents, teachers, and officials with the rushed and clumsy introduction of confusing education reforms. He sought to have a journalist who questioned those reforms fired from the state broadcaster. Most recently, Pohiva has dismayed many Tongans by cancelling Tonga’s hosting of the 2019 Pacific Games (which the previous government committed to) while continuing the levies which his own government had introduced to cover the costs.
Pohiva’s confused governance and increasingly autocratic tendencies led opposition representatives to present an unsuccessful motion of no confidence in February this year. Under the constitution another such motion would have been permitted in February 2018. An alternative option open to the opposition would have been to present an impeachment motion against Pohiva. Instead, the king chose to exercise his prerogative to dissolve Parliament.
A statement from the Palace clarified that the current government would continue in a caretaker role until the elections, while a statement from the Speaker cited some of the instances of poor governance by Pohiva mentioned above, and pointed to perceived attempts to encroach on royal powers. But under the Constitution, there was no real risk of the government taking over such powers without agreement of both Parliament and the monarch. In a curious paragraph, the Speaker appears to be suggesting that the constitutional process for seeking an impeachment against the Prime Minister or Ministers would be a waste of Parliament’s time and accordingly had been discarded as an option (with the implication that swift action by the monarch had become the Speaker’s preferred approach).
New Zealand’s response to this has been fairly muted. A press release from Foreign Minister Brownlee stated that “King Tupou VI has exercised his constitutional right to dissolve Parliament and we look forward to learning more in the days ahead about Tonga's plans for governance ahead of November's elections." Defence Minister Mark Mitchell ordered home the SAS, who coincidentally were in Tonga for a jungle-training exercise. It seems unlikely that any of Tonga’s international partners will express serious concern about the King’s action, particularly because it is a fairly contained intervention, described by the king’s advisers as simply bringing forward elections. And the November vote will provide an opportunity to test the Pohiva government’s legitimacy.
Tonga is a very young democracy and perhaps it is unrealistic to expect the new political system to become embedded without teething problems. Nevertheless these are disappointing developments. Experience in recent years in other Asia-Pacific monarchies suggests that a combination of poor governance and monarchical intervention against an elected government does little to advance the consolidation of democracy. Indeed, it can set an unfortunate precedent.
Christine Bogle is a doctoral candidate in political science at Victoria University of Wellington and a former diplomat. She served as New Zealand's High Commissioner to Tonga from 2008 to 2010.
Image credit: Tupou VI at his coronation on 4 July 2015. Photograph by Cpl. Brittney Vito, United States Marine Corps.