How people elect parliaments
Tonga – one of the world’s few remaining political monarchies – has moved a decisive step closer to democratic government, electing the first national Government which is not subject to royal and noble control.
But the role of the monarch as a constitutional figure who exercises his legal powers subject to advice from the elected government has yet to become fully settled.
Tonga is an emerging democracy, and a society with a continuing class system.
The role of the monarch – currently King Tupou VI – remains constitutionally paramount, and there continues to exist a small class of nobles.
The bulk of the Tongan population are still termed ‘commoners’.
Nonetheless the nation’s small Legislative Assembly has been evolving towards a more normal democracy, with progress accelerating in the past decade.
Essentially a blend of a commoners house and a nobles house in one chamber, the 26-seat Legislative Assembly, the Fale Alea, is a blend of 17 seats elected by the commoners together with 9 seats set aside for special election by (and from among) the noble lords, a class which includes 33 hereditary title-holders as well as a small number of ‘life peers’ created by the King.
If the Government appoints ministers from outside the Assembly – up to 4 in number – they are also appointed as additional MPs in the parliament.
Until constitutional changes made in 2010 the Assembly had only 9 elected commoners, and there were more additional MPS appointed directly by the king. Reforms in that year at least paved the way for a majority of the seats to be elected by the general population of Tonga.
The Tongan electoral democracy is not entirely normal. There is only one main political party – the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI) – led by the long-serving democracy campaigner ‘Akilisi Pōhiva. All other elected commoners are identified as non-party independents.
The 17 elected commoners are elected in single-member electoral divisions by the plurality (first past the post) voting system.
At the first modern – and more genuinely democratic – elections held in 2010, the DPFI party won 12 of the 17 elected seats. But the 5 independents and the 9 noble members of parliament managed to lure away a DPFI member, and formed a government led by the nobleman Siale ʻAtaongo Kaho, Lord Tuʻivakanō.
The 2014 elections seemed at first to be a setback for the DPFI, with the party losing 3 seats to independents. However DPFI leader Pōhiva somehow managed to cobble together a majority, and became the Prime Minister.
Pohiva’s government has been subjected to regular criticism by nobles (and other Tongans) for its performance, but survived a no-confidence motion last year.
Then in August this year the Speaker of the Parliament – the same Lord Tuʻivakanō whom Pōhiva had replaced as Prime Minister – prevailed upon the King to dissolve parliament early.
King Tupou VI himself, having ascended the throne in 2012 on the death of his elder brother, is a former noble member of the Assembly, and was Prime Minister from 2000 to 2006.
At first seen as something of a royal coup against the democratic government, the early election move has now backfired, with the DPFI winning 14 of the 17 elected seats.
The November 16 election result has thus for the first time gives the DPFI a functional majority in the Assembly, enabling it to form a government which not need to rely on votes from independents or nobles.
There remains the risk of individual MPs being lured away by inducements from the nobility. And there is, of course, also the eventual problem that Tonga has only the one political party.
But for the past decade, the political faultline in the country has been between democratic government and noble government, rather than between competing partisan electoral camps.
Pōhiva is also 76 years old, and his impending retirement may test the democracy movement, which has operated under his leadership for many years.
Pōhiva denies that he wishes to overthrow the monarchy itself, instead talking of wanting to ‘protect’ the king from constitutional embarrassment.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which Tonga is evolving towards a constitutional monarchy with ordinary responsible government, in which the monarch acts on the advice of the government supported by the Parliament. So far it seems that King Tupou is not entirely ready to complete that constitutional journey.
Another of the constitutional conflicts in the nation is between the rival institutions of the Privy Council – which advises the King – and the government’s Cabinet.
In most Westminster-style monarchies the two institutions are effectively merged. In Tonga they have been a source of ongoing governmental rivalry as democratisation has unfolded.
Indeed, the explanation given by parliamentary Speaker Lord Tuʻivakanō for urging the recent dissolution included the claim that Prime Minister was striving to give the Cabinet political pre-eminence over the Privy Council.
For years Pōhiva has continued to annoy the nobility with calls for more democratisation. During the 2010-14 term he called for the 9 noble seats to become elected by the general population as well – an idea to which he may yet return.