…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Democracy for Tonga

It wasn’t until I started working with the governor’s secretary, that I discovered what’s really happening on Tonga’s political scene. Tongatapu (main island) volunteers mentioned that September 2010’s elections were a move towards democracy for Tonga. Since I live in one of the more rural areas, correct information about the government rarely makes it to me.

Here’s how Kepu broke it down for me:

Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. From what I understand, this is where there is a king but his power is limited by a constitution. As with other constitutional monarchies, Tonga has a parliament which has duties afforded it by the constitution. One of the duties of the Tongan parliament is to elect a Prime Minister. The PM does most of the day to day governing, especially in Tonga where our King is rarely in the country.

Tonga’s Parliament has 26 seats. Before the September 2010 election, 9 of the seats were held by nobles who are a part of the royal family; the king appointed 8 seats and the people of Tonga elected the remaining 9 seats. So with the nobles and the king’s appointees, the monarchy had the majority. Last year, the numbers changed. The nobles were awarded 9 seats and the people elected 17 seats. The people now elect the representatives who have the majority when choosing the next PM among other responsibilities.

Why the push towards democracy?

Like any good English teacher would, I asked the “why” question. Why would Tonga make this change? In Ha’apai, it doesn’t seem like people have a problem with the way things are. From further research, that seems to be a Ha’apai sentiment.

New Zealand and Australia send a considerable amount of aid to Tonga (NZ gave about $65 million for the 2010-2011 financial year) mostly for government and educational reform. Coincidentally, both of those countries also take in the most Tongans seeking to go abroad. The push towards democracy is twofold. One, it is in the best interest of NZ and Aus. (and the rest of the Pacific) if Tonga stays relatively stable politically. In 2006, much of the capitol was burned down after the Legislative Assembly of Tonga closed for the year after promising to talk about moving the country towards democracy and not doing so.

Secondly, aid organizations have had a hard time tracking where their money goes. The thought is that if more of the parliamentarians are elected by the people (and therefore the PM), they would be more accountable to their constituents and spend aid/ tax money on things that the people want.

There also seems to be a discontent with elected officials on the part of the educated/involved Tongans. In the past, there has been little transparency and accountability. With aid organizations encouraging more representation and the people looking into the work and spending habits of their leaders, change is inevitable.

So what now?

I can’t get a clear answer on this but it seemed to me that eventhough the people had the choice to elect anyone they wanted to; they elected nobles for the “representative” positions. This would then give the nobles the majority again. I think this is due to a lack of understanding. Until this change and why it is important for Tonga can be explained at the village level, you will probably see the nobility get elected again and again. It’s cultural.

It’s an important time in Tonga’s history.  NZAid spent millions last year to educate people about democracy; I support them continuing to do this. With more education, Tonga is surly on its way to electing good leaders for the future.






1 Comment»

  Tim Burke wrote @

Democracy is hard work. It really does require an educated populace to understand the importance of the elected position and sending the right people to do the hard work required. Good posting. Thanks! -Tim Burke

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