13 Sep 2017

Dissolution of Tonga parliament rouses democracy concerns

7:39 am on 13 September 2017

Analysis - On Thursday afternoon, a short one-page notice was published that caught many in Tonga off guard. King Tupou VI had dissolved parliament, effective from 5pm.

Tongan Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva.

The now ex Tongan Prime Minister, 'Akilisi Pohiva. Photo: RNZI/Alex Perrottet

Months of frustrations with the government of Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva had come to a head, and the Speaker of Parliament, Lord Tu'ivakano, had gone to the palace to vent his frustrations and ask for a dissolution.

On Thursday, the Privy Council - the country's pre-eminent body, made up of the King and his royal appointees - met, and the decision was made.

The government will continue in an interim mode until the election, which has to be held before 16 November.

But the decision to dissolve parliament more than a year before the next election was due marks an effective vote of no confidence in Mr Pohiva, a long-time democracy campaigner who became the first democratically-elected Prime Minister in 2014.

The gazzette notice announcing the dissolution of parliament.

The gazzette notice announcing the dissolution of parliament. Photo: Supplied

Mr Pohiva and a number of his allies have been approached for comment. A spokesperson said a statement would be issued after a cabinet meeting is held. Lord Tu'ivakano has also been approached for comment.

Sitiveni Halapua, an academic and former parliamentarian, said the King was well within his right under the constitution to dissolve parliament and he does not need to provide an explanation, which he so far has not done.

Dr Halapua said the move raised fears about the country's long and fragile amble towards democracy.

"I think it's a great disappointment all around because there was great enthusiasm for democratic reform," he said.

A publisher, Kalafi Moala, said the decision was a setback for the democracy movement.

"The Speaker went to see the King to just say, 'it's not working out'," said Mr Moala.

"We do not know how to exercise this democracy we've got right now, it's not working out."

Mr Pohiva was the first-democratically elected Prime Minister in the country's second democratically-elected parliament, which followed significant reforms under an earlier King, Tupou V.

Tupou V's reforms were the result of a groundswell of support for a decades-long independence movement largely led by Mr Pohiva, 76, a one-time school teacher.

Under the 1875 constitution, Tonga's King wielded most of the country's power, along with a hereditary nobility which represented the island groups. The Privy Council and most of the legislature were appointed by the King.

But in the latter half of the 20th century, a democracy movement started simmering and grew to be increasingly outspoken. In 2005, the country was hit by major strikes and public protests, where political reform was urged.

The old Tongan parliament buildings

The old Tongan parliament buildings Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koro Vaka'uta

In September 2006, King Tupou IV died, and Tupou V ascended to the throne, where he announced his intention to pursue reform.

But the frustration continued and in November 2006 the capital, Nuku'alofa, was hit by riots that destroyed large parts of the town's main business district.

It was thought the democratic movement had been set back when the government invoked emergency powers following the riots, but in 2008, Tupou V announced that elections would be held in 2010, preceded by constitutional reform.

For the first time, the majority of the legislature would be elected by the people, with nine seats reserved for the nobility, a move which was hailed as a massive victory for the democracy movement.

But that hope fast faded once Mr Pohiva's government began and his premiership became marred by controversy.

Lord Vaea, a noble MP and critic of Mr Pohiva, said the government had made a series of worrying decisions, and frustrations with it had been mounting.

"In many ways, the current Prime Minister and his cabinet has failed to produce the good governance and the fair judgement and honesty of governing Tonga over the last three years," said Lord Vaea.

Among the problems faced by the Pohiva government, said Lord Vaea, included its controversial decision to ratify a United Nations women's treaty, its changes to the education system, and the dismissal of three cabinet ministers, including one who was convicted of bribery.

Mr Pohiva had already faced, and survived, one no confidence motion in 2016, but since then, the controversies had continued.

There has been outrage over the decision to push ahead with a development at Popua, a wetland and heritage area on the Nuku'alofa waterfront, which is being dug up for the creation of a golf course and canals.

Mr Pohiva has also been in a protracted dispute with the national broadcaster, the TBC, after he fired its chair and labelled it an "enemy of the government." Last month, the decision was made to part-privatise the broadcaster.

But according to Lord Vaea, the straw that broke the camel's back was the decision to pull out of hosting the Pacific Games, less than two years before they were to be held.

Mr Pohiva said the country could not afford to host the games, but construction for venues had already started, and the government had already imposed a foreign exchange levy and departure tax, which had not been lifted.

"We've sort of gone backwards over the last couple of years," said Lord Vaea, conceding the move was a setback for democracy.

"I think this puts a big question mark on why the transition didn't work well."

"Democracy can exist, but I think in many ways the current Prime Minister did not perform according to the etiquette and guidelines for democracy."

The aftermath of riots in downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006.

The aftermath of riots in downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006. Photo: AFP

While Dr Halapua said Mr Pohiva's government had to shoulder some of the blame, he said bigger questions had to be asked of Tonga's nascent democracy, and the considerable power that is still wielded by the throne.

Dr Halapua said that in the consultation process ahead of the reforms, the issue of the distribution of power was never raised. The King retains the power of veto and, of course, the right to dismiss the government at any time.

"When the time came to discuss the changes to the constitution, the focus was always on the power of the cabinet, the government and parliament. The question of the King was never raised," said Dr Halapua, who predicted the democracy debate would be reignited.

"It will be interesting to see the debate after this decision. There are still a lot of people who still support the monarchy, power and tradition. So I think we'll probably see how it plays out."

However, both Dr Halapua and Lord Vaea said King Tupou VI's decision was unlikely to re-spark the anger seen in Nuku'alofa in 2006.

Lord Vaea said while many would be disappointed in the King's decision, there would also be many who supported it, as there was widespread disappointment in the government.

"The mood in Tonga, I think, is pretty balanced," he said. "There is no direct or immediate emergency like that in 2006."

Dr Halapua said people had been disenchanted by the reforms, as they had seen little change in their living situations.

"I think it's a great disappointment all around because there was great enthusiasm for that democratic reform, people were excited about it," he said.

"There was high hope and now we have government, and people haven't seen any real fruit that can be identified as a product of the change."

For now, though, people in Tonga have been getting on with their lives. But many are waiting with bated breath to find out what happens next.

Will the King explain his decision? How will Mr Pohiva and his allies respond? And, of course, what do the people of Tonga think, and how will they react come November.