10 Feb 2024

Tonga's king has lost confidence in the government, triggering a week of drama in the kingdom

3:12 pm on 10 February 2024

By Marian Kupu and Nick Sas for the ABC

Tonga's King Tupou VI speaks during the High-Level Segment for Heads of State and Government session at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 1, 2023. World leaders take centre stage at UN climate talks in Dubai on December 1, under pressure to step up efforts to limit global warming as the Israel-Hamas conflict casts a shadow over the summit. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

King Tupou VI speaks at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on 1 December. Photo: AFP

Analysis - In Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa, the royal palace is hard to ignore.

The expansive white and red building, home to King Tupou VI and his queen Her Majesty Nanasipau'u, takes centre stage in the capital, towering over every other building.

Convention says that when the flag above the palace is flying, the king is home.

This week the flag was up - and inside, the king was concocting a drama.

The Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Tonga

The royal palace in Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa. Photo: RNZI / Gareth Thomas

The kingdom, as it's colloquially known to the island's small population and expansive diaspora, is in disarray this week after the monarch effectively withdrew his support of Tonga's government through an explosive letter.

But the government this week pushed back, questioning the letter's validity.

In Tonga the royal family is almost universally revered, yet this week's events have had many Tongans questioning the king's logic.

It has also left two major questions unanswered: has the king gone too far? Or not far enough?

Newly crowned King Tupou VI (left) and Queen Nanasipau'u (right) stand before the delegation at the Centenary Church in Nuku'alofa.

File photo. King Tupou and Queen Nanasipau'u in 2015. Photo: AFP

'Could have been a better way'

Tonga's royalty dates back to 1875, and it is now the only sovereign monarchy in the region.

It was an absolute monarchy for over 150 years until a decision was made in 2010 to reform the system, essentially making Tonga more democratic.

"In the old days it was the king who looked after the people, with the help of the nobles, on behalf of the king," Her Majesty Nanasipau'u, told the ABC in a recent interview.

"Now, these days it's different, [things] have changed, we have the government.

"But still, the main role of the king is still to help and look after the people. We're not isolated from the people, we work with the people."

This week the new, more democratic Tonga, was put to the test.

The Prime Minister, Honourable Hu’akavameiliku, held discussions with his New Zealand counterpart 
Honourable Chris Hipkins at the New Zealand High Commission in London on 3 May, 2023, on key 
areas like Climate Change, Education and Recovery.

Siaosi Sovaleni with Chris Hipkins in London last May. Photo: Tonga Government/Supplied

The drama kicked off last week when the Privy Council - the king's advisers or "voice" - issued a letter saying he had withdrawn "confidence and consent" in Defence Minister Hu'akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni - who is also the Prime Minister - and Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa 'Utoikamanu, also the tourism minister.

It was widely perceived, on first reading, that the king was essentially sacking the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister. Some commentators went further, suggesting he was overthrowing the government.

When the letter was leaked the prime minister was - some say conveniently - in New Zealand on an official visit. However he was in the country when the letter was penned. And after many days of speculation, the government this week responded, through the acting prime minister, saying the letter was unconstitutional.

Now we're in a stalemate.

The king isn't talking and neither is the prime minister.

The ABC reached out to both for comment.

"This [letter] is the king's expression of dissatisfaction with the prime minister [that] he's not satisfied with the way things are going," former prime ministerial political adviser Lopeti Senituli told the ABC.

"It's actually a vote of no confidence, so I think he - the king - should dissolve parliament all together."

The monarch has done this before in Tonga. Back in 2017 he used his "final check and balance" to dissolve parliament, after accusations the then prime minister was accused of trying to take further powers away from the royal family.

Yet, Senituli argues that this week's letter was a message. He says the king knows, under the constitution, that he cannot revoke appointments without the prime minister's approval.

Opposition MP Piveni Piukala told the ABC's Pacific Beat program this week that the letter, and the subsequent debate, has "opened discussions" as to "why this is all happening".

And he agrees with Senituli that it is an expression of dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister.

"But I think there could have been a better way [to do it]," he said.

'It's very confusing'

On the streets of Tonga, the scandal is the talk of the town.

The royal family is almost universally loved and revered, with Tongans having a deep historical respect of its traditions, convention and role within society.

Yet, unlike say the British royal family, communication - some would say public relations - with the people is less of a priority.

And partly because of this, at the kava bars on Friday afternoon in Nuku'alofa, there was one phrase that stood out.

"It's very confusing," Nesa, a local resident, told the ABC.

"It's hard to get both sides of the story, I just don't know who's right, and whose opinion is right."

Pila, a worker in the city, says he was too busy to figure it out.

"I don't understand what's going on," he says.

From here, some political watchers think the king's next move will be to dissolve parliament.

Others say the strong response from the government will force him to back down in order to save another damaging political crisis.

Either way, when the flag on the royal palace is up this week, Tongans will no doubt be wondering what King Tupou's VI is up to next.

- This story was first published by the ABC.

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