Challenges for Tonga as Election Looms

As Tongans lose faith in the major parties, the country’s election will likely see a rise in new independent members of parliament, Kalafi Moala writes.

Tonga goes to the polls on 18 November to elect 26 members of parliament. Seventeen ‘people’s representatives’ will be elected by over 60,000 registered voters, while nine ‘nobles’ representatives’ will be elected by 33 noble title-holders.

Three main issues loom as election day draws near. Top of the list is the COVID-19 pandemic – even more so now that the island kingdom has lost its COVID-free status.

A passenger from a New Zealand repatriation flight, that arrived in Tonga on Wednesday 27 October, tested positive when results were announced on Friday. On Monday 1 November the main island of Tongatapu went into lockdown for seven days.

But this turned out to be only a short-term alert as the person who tested positive was re-tested and the results came back negative. A follow-up test turned out to be a ‘weak positive’. This led to the declaration that the person who returned the weak positive results was not infectious, and the lockdown was lifted.

The second major issue facing the island kingdom is the problem of illicit drugs. The King spoke at a national symposium on the issue last month, and set forth the action programs to deal with this issue as a priority.

Third is that of corruption – reportedly rampant – in the wake of several recent high profile cases. Conflicts of interest, nepotism, financial misappropriation, and abuse of authority do not seem to be treated with the disdain they were just a few years ago.

This was evident at a press conference this author attended in August, when Prime Minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa tried to deflect criticism of alleged conflicts of interest in his government. The prime minister claimed: “There is nothing illegal about conflict of interest; if your brother can do the job cheaper and better, why not let him do it?”

But how are these issues affecting the upcoming election, if at all? Thus far, campaign speeches seem to be more focused on the candidates’ educational achievements, and what they have done or will do for development. In the reserved noble seats, it is all about connections.

The prime minister and others associated with him have led an aggressive re-election campaign, focusing on infrastructure issues like roads, housing, and the distribution of water tanks.

One would think the fact there are 17 people’s representatives in parliament, compared to only nine nobles’ representatives, would ensure that the former have an outsized influence in choosing the next prime minister.

But it has not been that way since 2010 reforms weakened the powers of parties and ensured that the nobles’ representatives would be the ultimate powerbrokers. They usually make up the numbers to control the election of the prime minister because they often vote as a unified group.

With 26 members of parliament, if the nine nobles’ representatives stand together to vote for a prime minister, they only need five people’s representatives to vote with them in order to have the majority.

It is not expected to be any different this year. In fact, nobles will likely have more influence, due to divisions among the two main political groups and the high number of independent candidates.

One thing is for sure in the build-up for this election: to run from a party platform is no longer viable. This is due to the damaging splits and scandals among the two largest parties, the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (PTOA) and the People’s Party (PAK).

Founded by the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, PTOA have been in disarray since his death due to the absence of a clear successor. This has created serious tension among the leaders as they jostle endlessly for power. This politicking has damaged the party’s reputation, which will seriously affect their chances of getting a majority of their candidates into parliament.

Their main rival, PAK, is in no better position. They have faced all kinds of difficulties since their deputy chair was jailed for fraud earlier this year. His wife, who was a minister, was also jailed for the same charges.

Current Prime Minister Tuʻiʻonetoa is nominally the chair of PAK, but in reality it looks like the party only exists on paper. The campaign literature of the prime minister has not mentioned PAK at all; neither have his campaign speeches.

This infighting amongst the two major parties has given rise to a wave of independent candidates. Some, like the son of the late Prime Minister Pohiva and sitting Member of Parliament, Siaosi Pohiva, believe the King’s recent speech claiming politicians lacked vision has also led to more independents contesting.

With only days to go before the election, these independents are gathering momentum. Some are campaigning together and seem to be planning a political affiliation – likely in conjunction with the nobles’ representatives – that could see them win government.

Ultimately, who gets voted in this week may be determined not so much by party affiliation, but by how the new representatives propose to govern and address the major concerns of Tonga’s people.

Kalafi Moala

This article was originally published on Policy Forum.

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