By Mary Lyn Fonua
Tomorrow, April 24, some of Tonga's 68,000 registered electors, will go to the polls to choose their nine representatives to sit in the Tonga Legislative Assembly, possibly for the next three years.
The 71 candidates who have registered for the five electoral districts of the islands of Tongatapu (28); Vava'u (22); Ha'apai (9); 'Eua (8); and the two Niuas (4); include the familiar faces of the nine incumbents, along with some new political faces who came to the forefront during the strikes, demonstrations and riots that traumatised Tonga during 2005 and 2006. Add to that eight women candidates (more than ever); the founders of new political groups; a handful of eccentrics; a charlatan; a couple of fraudsters; a few concerned citizens; some lay preachers, and some homely people who give an impression that they woke up on registration day thinking: "I'll run for parliament!"
If you are a Tongan national, provided you are not mentally retarded and can read and write, and have no criminal convictions, all you need to do is collect 50 signatures of endorsement and pay a registration fee of $200 to the registrar of electors and you can stand for parliament.
Says Pita Vuki the Registrar of Electors, "there are no political parties in the registration system and candidates stand as individuals."
Pita said that political parties have been registered in Tonga, "because a group of candidates want to campaign together, but with regards to the election, these parties can't register candidates, the candidates have to register as individuals."
This year there are more voters registered than ever before.
Every three years
But as simple as it sounds, this year - in contrast to the last nine triennial Tongan elections we have covered - on the eve of Tonga's 2008 General Election, the voters we have spoken to are confused and undecided.
Is it because there is lack of bright and shining young leaders who might step forward to replace Tonga's worn-out parliament that has been strangled by ineffective, uninformed and self-interested representatives for years?
Even the three-year term is uncertain and not only because eight candidates have pending court cases, including five incumbents charged with sedition following the November 16 riots, whose trial was postponed from November 2007 to August of this year. ('Akilisi Pohiva, 'Isileli Pulu, William Clive Edwards, 'Uliti Uata and Lepolo Taunisila).
Other candidates who have pending court cases relating to the riots of November 16, 2006, include Sangstar Saulala who is running for Tongatapu, 'Ofa Simiki who is running for the Niuas, and Teisina Fuko who is running for Ha'apai. Sedition, arson, housebreaking, abetment to damage of buildings, and riotous assembly are a few of the charges that are different for each one.
If they are lucky enough to be elected, they will lose their seats if they are convicted.
Those who have been blamed have publicly said that they don't feel guilty for the orgy of destruction and the damage that was inflicted on the capital and on people's lives; and they are suing media organisations, journalists, the government and anyone who might suggest otherwise.
The voters will have their say tomorrow.
If the accused incumbents happen to lose their seats in this election it will be seen by many as a more damning indictment than anything the courts might hand down in future.
Said one Nuku'alofa voter, "I think they will lose a lot of votes from people who associate them with the riots; but then again a lot of people were very happy with the tinned beef and the free loot on 16/11, so, who knows? They might vote to express their thanks," he said wryly.
Proposed Political Reforms
The most topical issue is the reforms promised by government before 2010, but whatever the result of the election and whoever goes into the House, for individual Tongans the reform is still undecided. Tonga's political reform is not a question of when, but rather, a question of "what?".
Although the proposed reforms will mean that a majority of representatives are elected into the parliament by the people, there are some who have strong reservations.
Loau Society president and a new candidate for Tongatapu, 'Inoke Hu'akau, who is an Australian Tongan community broadcaster, says the reforms are the first step toward a dictatorship and he calls them "shallow in principle".
"The purpose is to checkmate the king. The danger with that is that it's easy to call 'Checkmate', but what follows is that all the other players get knocked out. It was a similar game that Stalin did in Russia, . . . once he said 'Checkmate', that was the end of the game, he had the political power . . . and Mao Zedong of China did the same.
"The proposed reform will collapse the system. If you look at how dictatorship arises out of any system, this is how it is done, to lump the political power together and then you rise on top of it, whoever rises on top controls the whole thing, and that is how dictatorships are made in modern times."
He believes that for a political reform for Tonga to be successful the people must first fully understand the social implications of such a reform.
Standard of living
Other political groups such as the new PLT or the Paati Langafonua Tu'uloa headed by candidate Sione Fonua, a lawyer, say they will strive to raise the standard of living of Tongans.
There are other candidates who are affiliated to groups who broadly come under a "Demo" label, including Tonga's Friendly Islands Human Rights and Democracy Movement (FIHRDM) of which the Prime Minister was once a member; the People's Democratic Party (PDP); the People's Committee for Democratic Reform (PCDR); the Public Service Association (PSA); and others who have fluidly changing alliances and proposals.
Strongly mixed currents remain in the heart of a community that has been deeply divided by the tragic events of 16/11, a community struggling with economic hardships, and facing some momentous changes in the way the political system will be run in future, and at the same time seeing a supposedly more-democratic administration chipping away at some important freedoms.
Most seriously, the recent censorship of and restrictions on the content of political programmes broadcast on public media is having an impact on the outcome of this year's election. The Tongan public who, of course, have access to other media, still like to judge comparative performances between candidates on their national television - Television Tonga, their only local news television station. On April 8, under a hastily imposed pre-election policy aimed at controlling the messages of candidates the Tonga Broadcasting Commission board, chaired by the Prime Minister, has turned public broadcasting into state broadcasting that is interfering with public opinion.
"The government is trying to stop us from hearing what our candidates have to say," said one civil servant today, "even though I work for the government I don't like this."
Others see the political controls as pointless, because candidates turn to privately-owned radio or their own newspapers to run their campaigns instead. Up to that point most of the campaigning has been done around kava circles in the villages, where seasoned politicians realise that more important than what is said is that they know people by their first names.
While still others view the often farcical television campaigns as the month's best local entertainment.
Tonight, in a televised speech with a theme of, "Nothing worse than a wish that never happens," a Tongatapu candidate Sateki Finau is seeking the support of church leaders. "I'm just a simple guy. I don't know anything - but God works in mysterious ways," he cries, hopefully.
Otherwise free and fair
There is no doubt that the polling process and vote counting in Tonga will be free and fair and as fast as usual - with results coming in from polling stations tomorrow evening and throughout the night. But it could be that this year, faced with a dubious selection of candidates, many undecided voters - like quite a number of dead people who remain on the electoral register - won't be turning out to tick the ballot slips, opting out instead for "none of the above".
This year there will be no polling at Pangai Si'i and the main polling station in Nuku'alofa has been moved, with the outer islands booths located next to Saione, the Methodist Church, on Hala Vaha'akolo, and Kolofo'ou at the St Paul's Hall.
Tonga currently has a 33 member Legislative Assembly sitting in one House, composed of 15 cabinet ministers (including two governors) who are appointed by the king, with some ministers chosen from elected members as recommended by the Prime Minister; nine Nobles' Representatives who are elected by the 29 noble titleholders; and nine People's Representatives, who this year will be elected from a role of more than 68,000 registered electors.
For full list of candidates, see: Tonga's general election attracts 71 candidates
The results of Tonga's 2008 General Election will be posted on the Matangi Tonga Online website on the evening of Thursday April 24, as the results come to hand.