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Tonga - Government

The Kingdom of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. King Tupou VI succeeded his older brother in 2012, and was formally crowned in 2015. The king, popularly elected parliamentary leaders, the nobility and their representatives, prominent commoners, and democratic reform figures dominated political life. Parliamentary elections, which observers characterized as generally free and fair, were held in 2014, and in 2014 parliament elected long-time supporter of democratic reform Samiuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva as prime minister.

Until 2010 the constitution was essentially King George Tupou I’s constitution granted in 1875, under which executive power resided with the monarch.

Under the 2010 constitution, Tonga is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy with a unicameral Legislative Assembly consisting of 26 elected members, nine of whom are elected by and from among the country’s 33 hereditary nobles, and 17 on the basis of universal adult suffrage (women received the vote in 1960) in a general election which must take place at intervals of no longer than four years. Up to two cabinet ministers who are not already elected Assembly members become ex officio members.

The Prime Minister is chosen by the Legislative Assembly and appointed by the monarch. The Prime Minister selects his cabinet who are then appointed by the monarch. The Prime Minister may nominate up to four ministers from outside the Assembly and on appointment they become members of the Assembly.

All land belongs to the Crown. Large estates have been allotted to nobles. By law, every male Tongan at age 16 is entitled to a small piece of agricultural land and a small town plot. In practice, there is not enough land and the majority of men have not been allocated any land, and latterly there have been objections to the exclusion of women. Consequently, reform of the land tenure system has been under discussion.

In April 2005, Tonga's first official political party, the People's Democratic Party, was formed, and its candidate was one of those elected to parliament in special May by-elections held to fill the two people's representational seats vacated by the king's cabinet appointments. The by-election also resulted in the election of the first woman to sit in the Tongan parliament in 24 years. When the princely prime minister resigned from office in early 2006, the king appointed People's Representative Feleti Sevele as the first commoner prime minister in modern times.

In 2005 the National Committee of the Kingdom of Tonga on Political Reform (NCPR) was established by the Legislative Assembly of Tonga to consider submissions, hold consultations, and facilitate talanoa (dialogue or conversation) relating to political and constitutional reforms. It was asked to recommend legislative or other changes to build national unity and promote the social and economic advancement of the people of Tonga. The Committee was formally endorsed by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV in August 2005 and its report was presented to cabinet in August 2006.

Pro-democracy groups staged demonstrations in September 2005 and in June 2006 and presented petitions to the king's representative that called for constitutional changes, including a popularly elected parliament. The king did not specifically respond to these petitions. In October 2005 Parliament commissioned the National Committee on Political Reform (NCPR) to ask citizens around the nation and abroad for recommendations about necessary political changes. The committee met with groups of citizens throughout the country and expatriate groups in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

In late August 2006 the committee presented a report of its findings to the king, and on October 3, it presented its report to Parliament. The report recommended an elected parliament, with an increase from nine to 17 in the number of MPs elected by the general public; the 33 nobles would continue to elect nine MPs from among their number. The prime minister would be selected by the king from and would select cabinet members from among the 26 elected MPs. In response to the report the cabinet suggested the formation of a tripartite committee to review the NCPR's recommendations as well as an alternative proposal for more limited reforms made by the prime minister.

Following discussions in cabinet the report was presented to the Legislative Assembly and debated extensively between October and November 2006. While much of the report was accepted by both the Government and the Pro-Democracy Movement, a stand-off emerged over precisely how many seats would be for elected representatives and those reserved for nobles in a reformed Legislative Assembly.

In September 2006 King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV (1965–2006) died after a long illness and was succeeded as head of state by his eldest son who was sworn in as King George Tupou V. In November 2006, it seemed that Parliament would go into recess before enacting democratic reforms.

On 16 November 2006, citing security concerns due to proreform and antireform demonstrations in front of Parliament House, the Parliament did not meet to vote and thus took no action on reform recommendations.

In a last-minute meeting with prodemocracy leaders aimed at calming the crowds outside his office, the prime minister agreed to support a reform plan for a 30-member parliament with 21 representatives elected by the general populace and nine representatives elected by the nobles, to be implemented beginning with elections in January 2008. The agreement came too late to head off the riot.

The large pro-reform demonstration subsequently degenerated into a group of several thousand rioters who attacked, looted and burned numerous buildings in the central business district. The political rally turned violent when it appeared that the Government would not accept opposition demands. Subsequent rioting and looting resulted in six deaths and 80% of the central business district was burnt down. A number of People’s Representatives were charged with offences linked to the rioting.

Absolute monarchy was abolished by Tonga's King George V after the riots in November 2006 that destroyed much of Nuku'alofa's central business district. George responded by diminishing much of the royals' power, and a more democratic constitution was introduced.

Under the constitution any agreement on reforms would have to be passed by Parliament and approved by the king before it could go into effect, and Parliament took no further action on reform proposals by year's end. In a speech on 22 November 2006 to close Parliament, the king affirmed that political reform should continue and requested that all political factions work to negotiate terms of a compromise reform plan before the next opening of Parliament in May 2007.

A tripartite committee consisting of nobles, ministers and people’s representatives was established in June 2007 and tasked to find a consensus on political reform and to make recommendations to parliament. The committee was able to agree on a number of issues, including allocation of seats in a new legislature: 17 elected members, 9 nobles elected by their peers, with the King electing two governors and two ministers. Other unresolved issues meant that elections in 2008 were conducted under existing electoral legislation with only nine people's Representatives elected by popular vote: it was anticipated that 2010 would see a more competitive election where the majority of representatives were elected by the people.

Tonga’s 2008 General Election was therefore seen as a vote on the popularity of the pro-democracy movement. The majority of incumbent MPs were returned, including four who face charges for sedition related to events around the riots of November 2006. In June 2008 the new Parliament took a first step towards reform ahead of the 2010 election and introduced a Bill to establish a new Political Reform Commission tasked to make recommendations for change and to report to Parliament before the end of 2008. Parliament and the Cabinet appointed a candidate to the Commission; the Judiciary Services Commission also appointed two. Members of the Commission cannot be serving members of the legislative assembly, cabinet or the Judiciary Services Commission.

In November 2010, the Polynesian nation held its first direct elections, which marked the end of centuries of monarchic rule in Tonga. In the country’s first democratic elections, held on 25 November 2010, when turnout was 91 per cent, the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI), led by ’Akilisi Pohiva, won 12 of the 17 popularly elected seats, but remained short of a majority in the 26-seat Legislative Assembly. The remaining seats were taken by five independent people’s representatives and nine nobles.

In December 2010, the newly elected parliament confirmed Lord Tu'ivakano as the country's first elected prime minister. Previous prime ministers were appointed by the king.

King George Tupou V died 18 March 2012 in a Hong Kong hospital at age 63, with his younger brother and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka, at his side. King Tupou, known to the outside world for eccentricities such as being driven around in a London taxi, will be remembered by his subjects for introducing democracy to the nation of 100,000 people. He was sworn in as king in September 2006 following the death of his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

After King George Tupou V died he was succeeded as head of state by his brother, former Prime Minister (2000–06) and High Commissioner to Australia (2008–12) Crown Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka, who was sworn in as King Tupou VI.

At elections held on 27 November 2014, the DPFI – led by ’Akilisi Pohiva – won nine seats and independents eight. At the first sitting of the new Parliament, the members elected Pohiva as Prime Minister. He was supported by 15 members and former Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu by 11.

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Page last modified: 12-07-2017 18:57:49 ZULU