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Who can rescue Tonga from its free-fall?

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Editor's Comment, by Pesi Fonua

What kind of government would Tongans like to have working for them following the 16 November election? It's evident that the new government, to be formed by the end of this year, has an enormous challenge ahead, because our elected leaders need to rescue Tonga from a “free-fall” situation that we have found ourselves in, after seven years under a system that has not met the public's expectations.

The answer is that we need to have a government that is both willing and able to advance Tonga's Democratic Reform Process that was set in motion in 2010 – or fear collapse into a backward slide.

Tonga needs a government that demonstrates democratic progress and value for money, reaped from taxpayers and foreign aid donors for running a parliament and providing government services.

The new Tongan parliamentary system that was introduced in 2010 has been described as a system where elected representatives of the people and the nobles gather and pass decisions by consensus, and not along party lines as found in foreign party systems.

Two successive governments, we have elected since 2010, have not been able to advance the democratization process, as promised in the political urging for change before then. Instead, they have been struggling to remain in operation amid the tabling of a failed Vote of No Confidence, and calls for impeachment of Cabinet Ministers.

Warning call

If we were not aware of the vulnerable position that Tonga has found itself in, then a warning call was the sudden dissolution of Parliament by the King on 24 August this year. A Writ of Election set a date for a General Election, no later than 16 November. We were given 85 days to get ready for this snap election.

Although the Electoral Commission was working on changes to improve the electoral regulations, there have been no major changes to Tonga's election system for finding 17 People’s Representatives. With no changes to the simplistic single-round "first past the post" polling, there is nothing to make us believe that there may be changes in the attitudes of candidates or voters on November 16. This is inevitable when you have many candidates competing for a share of the votes locked into each of 17 tiny constituencies. The largest constituency, Tongatapu 3, has only 4,144 people of voting age, while the smallest, Ongo Niua, has ony 663 people of voting age according to the 2016 census. Only four constituencies have over 4,000 people of voting age and not all have registered to vote.

The only thing that we can be certain of is that we will get more of the same. In the last two governments, some of the new Members of Parliament won seats supported by a minority of voters in their constituencies. When voters spread their votes over many competing candidates, it means that the winner can be "first past the post" with only a few hundred votes. When this happens, we are left with an unhappy situation where a majority of voters in the constituencies did not vote for the person who represents them in parliament.

Any of the 17 newly elected People's Representatives and nine Nobles Representatives may be nominated for the job of Prime Minister. The members make their own choice from among themselves after the General Election.

Noble's Representatives

However, there has been a significant change recently to the process for choosing MPs for the nine Nobles seats. Life Peers in this coming election may now be elected as Nobles Representatives to the Tongan Parliament. Nobles hold a separate election among themselves

Among the five life peers are four former government ministers, a former Prime Minister, and a former judge. All have professional qualifications and experience that is not found among the traditional nobles. It appears that the electoral change was made with the prospect of having one or more of these life peers enter the House.

In Tongatapu, Lord Dalgety, Lord Tupou and Lord Sevele are among the 17 men who are eligible for the three Tongatapu Nobles seats and one 'Eua noble's seat.

In Vava’u, Lord Tangi and Lord Matoto are among the 10 nobles eligible for the two Vava'u noble's seats

If, by any chance, some of these professionally experienced life peers enter Parliament, possibly joining the Cabinet, their contributions to Tonga’s democratization process would be noticeable.

People's Representatives

Meanwhile, for the People's seats it would take a major shift in the mind-set of voters to change from choosing candidates who have the loudest horns in their neighborhoods, to choosing People’s Representatives who might reliably address matters of national importance and provide honest national leadership

There is no shortage of seriously challenging national issues facing Tonga's people, from the state of the economy, to health, to education, to the environment, while addressing poverty, lawlessness and lack of opportunity, and finding a way to advance democratic process, accountability and national pride.

Tonga is sinking because during the past seven years we have not been able to find solutions to many entrenched problems. Now parliament has been dissolved and Tongan voters are being asked to make a fresh attempt to choose capable representatives and leaders from their communities.

If we do not vote into the House members who can form an effective government, then the longer it takes to find a path forward, the worse the problems become. A need for solutions has never been more urgent.

It's clear that following the 2017 General Election, Tonga needs a government that sets its prime objectives to address national interests, as well as better communicating the needs of the constituencies into constructive lawmaking.

It's good also to remember when going to the polls on Thursday November 16, that the major responsibility of MPs is the drafting of legislation and the welfare of the nation as a whole. Tonga needs clear and active vision in order to arrest its fall.


SIONEULI's picture

I just wonder whether there was anything learned from the last two elections, and if so, what can the new representatives, once elected, take or do to implement what is good for the country? Tonga appears to have a system of government that is different to most other democratic electoral systems. For instance, the US two party system or the Australian multiple party system. Could Tonga adopt a two party system? The problem with the current system, as is understood by most people, is the lack of cohesion between elected ministers in handling policy making decisions. It would appear that, that is the primary concern expressed by most people's frustration. In your article, it exposes a problem over policy decision making, that must be based on the needs of the people rather than along ministerial lines. If this is the case, how does govt operate to satisfy its own budgetary concerns and the needs as expressed by the people. I can only hope that with the new election coming up, and new representatives to rule the country, things will turn out good for Tonga and its people.
Malo 'aupito
John Uri

Well said Sir......And never before has Tongan needed divine guidance & direction. If we think that man in his own wisdom can bring Tonga into the destiny that is meant for it, we are sorely mistaken. Tonga needs leadership that knows how to access divine wisdom and understanding. Tonga is a great nation, the jewel of the Pacific and a nation with enormous potential and many very bright and intelligent citizens!! God bless Tonga and bless and direct in the choosing of the nation's new representatives!!.....God & Tonga is our inheritance!!!

In 2010 the government decided not to adopt the recommendations of the constitutional commission. Instead it adopted its own submission to the commission. Which included the first passed the post system and the removal of the cabinet from privy council. It also abolished the judicial services commission. You are now left with the “free fall” situation you describe.
To suggest that the “life peers” will solve it is ludicrous when they created this situation in the first place. Good luck but if you don’t adopt the changes sought by the government to the privy council and the judiciary then you will be back in this same situation after November 16. - John J Cauchi