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Tonga in turmoil after 9 years of “more democratic government”

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Tonga's ailing Prime Minister Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva (78) has a paramount concern: the succession of his leadership. He now faces opposition to the government he has headed since the elections of November 2014. There is rivalry and turmoil. He feels challenged. The reform is not what he imagined. He warns of clashes. Matangi Tonga Editor, Pesi Fonua talks to the Prime Minister about why, nine years after the reform, the PM remains at odds with the new system that parliament voted for in 2009.

Tongan Prime Minister Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva. Prime Minister's Office, Nuku'alofa. 26 August 2019. Photo by Pesi Fonua.

Interview by Pesi Fonua

Ailing Prime Minister Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva (78) who returned to Tonga after the Tuvalu Pacific Islands Forum in August, said this week that he was still not feeling well.

Earlier this year, his doctors found complications in his liver and he's been on medication ever since, hoping for a recovery.

But Tonga’s PM is troubled by what's happening around him, and he's not ready to quit the top job.

“As I feel now, after September I will still be around,” he told Matangi Tonga in an interview on August 26 (conducted in Tongan, quotations are translated).

“My illness, it is complicated. I believe what the doctors are saying, they are right, but it turned out at the beginning, after I was examined, they discovered something (“mea”) in my liver. They said that it could be gone in four or five months. Now it is over five months, we are going on to six. I still don’t feel well. I feel it is better and that is because they gave me pills. Then on top of the pills are juices and food. The advice from Piveni’s wife [Piukala], who is a doctor, and two others from the US and a liquid from Bainimarama, all the same: turmeric, ginger, and an egg, all good. Veihalo and fruit. I also take pills. I keep telling them, remember God is different, mystery – divine intervention and I believe that.”


The PM talks about a paramount concern: the succession of his leadership. After a lifetime of oppositional politics, since the former school teacher was first elected as a People's Representative in 1987, ‘Akilisi Pohiva now faces opposition to the government he has headed since the elections of November 2014. There is rivalry. His perceptions of “authority” under the reformed system of government are challenged. The reform is not exactly what he wanted. His insistence on governing with a self-determined “paati” remains at odds with the reformed system that parliament voted for in 2009. He doesn't like comments that have been made against his government. He doesn't want taxpayers’ money spent on Commissions established to investigate his establishment of the controversial Popua Park, and the Nuku'alofa riots of 16 November 2006.

He says: “There is hatred and anger, broken hearts, that we could see, making it difficult to see what is happening clearly.”

His Cabinet Ministers are running the country.

“Yes, I feel it, it is age, and the work, but I feel that my energy is back, enabling me to attend meetings. It is important for me to work with my team before I rest. So that when I leave [for New Zealand] I feel comfortable.

“It is not an easy task for me to leave the issue of leadership, particularly at this point of time.

“They are doing all the work, and when we have a Cabinet meeting, then I join,” he says.

Medical treatment

Earlier this year, the PM spent many weeks in New Zealand where he was admitted to Mercy Hospital in May, and told he needed a second phase of treatment for his liver complication. But he returned to work in Tonga, and was again admitted to Vaiola Hospital on August 2, for observation, before attending the Pacific Forum meeting in Tuvalu from August 13-16. His self-confessed poor state of health made it a difficult journey.

He wants to leave a legacy. But the party ideal, that is fundamental to his political thinking, has not solidified and party affililates are elected into parliament with their own agendas.


Prime Minister Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva is the second Prime Minister to be elected under Tonga's reformed system.

The first General Election under a new Constitutional and Electoral Reform was held on 25 November 2010. It followed a long process of structuring a new system of Government after the Tongan Parliament had formed a Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission1. on July 23 2008. The debate on the Commission's report and recommendations concluded in December 2009.

The new system of government2 , agreed by the Tongan Parliament, solidifies and confirms the existing social structure of Tonga. The King as Head of State retains the power to rule the country. He can dismiss the government and veto laws. The King runs the defence services that were renamed: His Majesty's Armed Forces (HMAF).

Nine years on, from the formation of “a more democratic system of government” Matangi Tonga asked the Prime Minister for his views.


Where have we got to under this “more democratic form of government”?

 “If I start from where we are now. The reform was initiated by a Parliamentary Commission, known as the Tu‘ipelehake Committee. There were three Fundamental Concepts that were highlighted in the report [of 2009]:

  • Return to the Old Electoral System;
  • For the people to elect the nobles’ representatives to parliament.
  • And a third one, which I can’t remember.

“Outside the House there was another committee of the Privy Council, and they tabled into parliament a different proposal. Very different from what was proposed by the Tu‘ipelehake Committee.

“Firstly, they changed the format from a National General Election to an election from 17 constituencies. They did not alter the number of Members of Parliament but from then on the whole process was in disarray. The direction that was proposed by the people in the Tu’ipelehake Committee’s report was discarded; new ideas were inserted, and that was the beginning of the process of disarray.

“For me if the People’s recommendations were allowed to follow the process it would have been fine, but when the Privy Council moved in and removed authorities (Mafai, Executive Power), that was when the whole process was in a disarray, as it is at the moment,” he says.

“However, I sincerely believe that the reform will take place, whether we like it or not. The reform will take place to be inline with how the world is changing, and our involvement in the process.

The Prime Minister wants to change the direction of the reform to give more authority to the PM, and he explains why.

 “I feel that as we evolve, we could see problems. As time moves along, more of my authority has been taken away. I know, but I just ignore it. For example, suddenly the Cabinet is told to form a Commission, or for somebody [to represent Tonga] overseas. For example, the appointment of ‘Akau‘ola as an Ambassador to Dubai.

“Under the Law, the Prime Minister who is also the Minister for Foreign Affairs should participate in that decision making process. It is essential [for me] to be part of the process, because of the financial component of the process, I have to sign the agreement, that is what I have been used to.

“This one has been carried out outside, so my personal feeling, as times roll along, my authority is getting less, so, I don’t want to argue over it, I just ignore it,” he says, regarding the King’s appointment of the ambassador.

Concepts of reform

So has the reform that Parliament agreed on been implemented?

“No,” says the PM.

“When we came in we thought that their propositions were right but, unfortunately, they claim that we are trying to take away authority.”

The PM refers to the Privy Council’s reactions against six bills3 that his government introduced to amend the Constitution to give greater executive power to Cabinet.

“When we debated over the same issues when Lord Tu‘ivakano (the first elected Prime Minister under the reformed system) and Clive (Edwards) were in government, there was no mentioned of an attempt to snatch authority.

“All these claims, were raised when I became a Prime Minister, so I feel it is not clean, and is not a fair decision. My personal view, and I apologise because I could be wrong,” he says.

“There is hatred, and anger, broken heart broken, that we could see, making it difficult to see what is happening clearly.

The claim, that I am trying to take away authority, is surprising; I am shocked.

The claim has gone haywire, and we don’t know what we can do about that, so we just leave it there.

Tug of war

So what about the reform. Shall we go back and fix it, then implement it properly?

“The reform will take place, but this is how I look at it. The people are ready for the reform. All ready and waiting. My concern is that we advance properly. The people are desperately waiting for what they were hoping for, that is my concern. Because my personal feeling, and I am very close to the people, and many of them, are not happy.

“Firstly, the fact that I can’t meet the King. People are very sad about it. They are asking, what is the reason?

“I have forwarded my request to Viela [Lord Chamberlain]. What I am worried about is that the country is ready to move forward. I am concerned that they would be sick of waiting, while we are having a tug of war and something might happen. I can be wrong, but that is the feeling I have. I know when I talk to the people they are very concerned, very sad about comments that have been made against this government. They are concerned about the spirit behind these comments, and that is why I don’t think we can stop things, the wheel is rolling.

“Whether we like it or not, as for me I just want it to be as smooth as possible, and nothing goes wrong.”

Clash of ideals

This issue of political parties and the Prime Minister's definitions of party politics remains at odds with the system that was agreed by Parliament that, in fact, did not structure Tonga's system for parties. MPs are elected into parliament as individuals and the election of the Prime Minister is made by sitting MPs. But in the PM’s perfect world there would be no liaision between Nobles and the People's Representatives. He explains that when People's Representatives agree with the Nobles it spoils the unity of an entity he calls “The People”.

The introduction of a Political Party System of Government, and a party system of government was not even mentioned in the “more democratic system of government” that parliament accepted on 18 December 2009. So how can it be possible for a country that does not have a Political Party System of Government to be run by a political party?

“ Okay, I call our thing a ‘Party’.

“When they say that there is only one House, I disagree. There are two Houses. That is the truth. Nobles and the People. To say that there is one House; that is a wrong assumption. It is clear there are two Houses, particularly during our debates. To say that there is only one House, that is wrong, there are two houses, and I want to clarify that.

“Like our Party, we have to check to make sure that we are still on track or not. It is very difficult, because, after we were elected we didn’t know what are the other members working agendas. All different and no one knows.

“Once we are inside, I know. So I can say it is not easy to get everyone together. Because for the reform that I want, there is a need for the others to be ready. Though I accept that there are differences. All those issues, we won’t go over it, but the fact is we are all different and it would be difficult to convince others, however, my assessment of the situation, we are not too bad. There are minor differences, by my personal views, my work with the Ministers, they are very loyal to me, and they respond to what I asked for.

“But talking about the party, does it exist? The Party is very quiet, it is the People’s Party,” PM Pohiva says.


Do you think we should clarify and make it clear, that what we have is a party system of government?

“That is the right thing to do. But remember, there are 17 People’s Representatives, and nine Nobles Representatives. Straight after the first election, five (People Representatives) moved out [didn't support his aims], so we dropped [support] from 17 to 12, we lost. So that is the problem. It is natural that some want to be Cabinet Ministers, want to be a PM, it is natural. But the difficulty is that some have their own agendas different from others. So they come in to use the nobles, they come in to get their numbers from the nobles, forgetting that the wishes of the people is for 17 People's Representatives. At the moment, we don’t have 17, we are only 14. It is written down 17, but now only 14, three have left [not supportive].

Shall we spell it out that what we have is a party system of government?

“Whether we write it down as a Party System, but in reality there are two parties, the Nobles and the People. Not officially spelled out, but there are two parties. A party of the Chiefs and a Party of the People and between those two it is difficult.

“Right now there are members who are floating around outside.”

Is there a proposal to revamp our political reform? How did we end up with such a set up where the country is under a different system of government, and the government itself is under a different system, a political party system of government?

“ I will soon make a statement on that issue. Very soon, I’ll make a statement to clarify the differences. The Party of the People, and the Nobles Party.

“All these claims, were raised when I became a Prime Minister, so I feel it is not clean, and is not a fair decision. My personal view, and I apologise because I could be wrong.

“The claim, that I am taking away authority, is surprising; I am shocked.

“The claim has gone haywire, and we don’t know what we can do about that, so we’ll just leave it there,” PM Pohiva says.

He explains during his illness his ministers are running the country. There are six Bills that they want to pass to change the Constitution.

So government is running according to how you want it to be?

“Yes it is running, but I have told them not to bother the King, he has power, let’s just do what we are supposed to be doing. If we confront that, it would be noisy. We have tabled six Bills, and let’s stay with those.

“There are also small issues that the Palace Office had informed me of, and I just want to ignore it.

“I will tell you. The property where Cecil Cocker used to be [Vuna Road seafront], there was a Cabinet decision to renovate the building for the next Prime Minister to be in it. We approved it. Then we got a letter [from the Palace], saying nobody is allowed in there. I said, that is okay, don’t worry about it.”

“No one is there. It is the right residence for a PM. But no.”

“Also the former British High Commission’s Residence. In London we talked and I told them that I would renovate the place for them. When I came back. No.

“My concern is for the King to do the right thing and be respectable. But as time is rolling along he is taking away my authority. They [King in Privy Council] called for the establishment of Commissions to investigate the establishment of the Park at Popua, and the 16/11, I was not consulted.”

Prime Minister Pohiva says he is refusing to provide the funding for the Commissions to start their investigations.

“I'm supposed to provide the funds, but I said no money, no provision and leave it at that, and that is where they are. They asked and I said no money. I am not going to waste the people’s money because of petitions to investigate this and that. No money!”

“There will be a clash,” he says.


1. The Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission was mandated to present an interim report to the Privy Council and to the Legislative Assembly by June 5 2009. The five- members Commission were: Chief Justice Gordon Ward; Chairman, Lord Vaea, appointed by the Nobles’ Representatives; Dr Sitiveni Halapua appointed by the People’s Representatives; Dr ‘Ana Maui Taufe’ulungaki and Sione Tu‘itavake Fonua, appointed by the Judicial Commission. The Commission published its Final Report and Recommendation on November 5 2009.
2. Parliament agreed on a new system of Government to be in place before the 2010 elections:
  • Tonga to remain a Constitutional Monarchy under the leadership of King George Tupou V and his heirs;
  • The King in the Privy Council to appoint the Chief Justice, the judges of the Appeal Court and the Attorney General. The Privy Council to be the Court of Appeal for dispute over hereditary titles;
  • The King to have the authority to assent legislation, dismantle parliament and to pardon prisoners;
  • The members of the Privy Council to be appointed by the King and their role is to advise the King;
  • The Privy Council to no longer have the authority to pass ordinances;
  • The Tongan Parliament to have 26 members, and of these 17 individuals to be elected by the people, and nine nobles to be elected by the 33 noble title-holders.
3 Ref. Public Consultation ends with Kolomotu'a 92% against Bills The bills deal with complex issues such as who appoints officials, including judges, the Police Commissioner and Attorney General. The six Bills that would amend the Constitution to establish new bodies to appoint officials, are:
  • Bill 15/2019 - Act of Constitution of Tonga (Amendment) Bill 2019 (to reform the Judiciary and other related matters).
  • Bill 16/2019 - Act of Constitution of Tonga (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2019 (to establish the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to take over those powers relating to Criminal Prosecutions formerly vested in the Attorney General).
  • Bill 17/2019 - Tonga Police (Amendment) Bill 2019 (to remove the reference to the Judiciary appointments and discipline Panel).
  • Bill 18/2019 - Magistrate’s Courts (Amendment) Bill 2019 (to remove all references to the Judicial Appointments and Discipline Panel and Lord Chancellor).
  • Bill 19/2019 - Judicial and Legal Service Commission Bill 2019 (revisions relating to Judicial and Legal Office and Related Matters).
  • Bill 20/2019 - National Spatial Planning and Management (Amendment) Bill (to Remove the References to the Judicial Appointments and Discipline Panel).