Independents the winners in Tongan election

Voters from outer islands queue up to enter their designated polling place during Tonga’s general election, in the capital city of Nuku’alofa on November 18, 2021. Mary Lyn Fonua / AFP

Is the party over? 

Tonga’s election has seen support for the country’s two major parties disintegrate, in favour of a large new cohort of independents, Kalafi Moala writes.

The people have spoken and voted for change. On 18 November, Tongans elected nine new people’s representatives and three new nobles’ representatives. Only eight incumbent people’s representatives and six nobles’ representatives retained their seats in parliament, in an election that will probably go down as the country’s most significant of the decade.

The big winners are independents who, with their numbers growing to 13, now form the largest ‘group’ in parliament. If these independents were to vote together, they will command a majority and will be able to select the next prime minister.

The big losers are the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (PTOA) which, despite having dominated Tonga’s political landscape for 34 years, was all but eliminated from parliament.

Women candidates also lost out, with none being elected to parliament. 12 women ran in a total field of 73 candidates, yet only 4,352 votes were cast for them.

The PTOA did not just lose the election; they brought to an end the incredible yet tattered legacy of a movement founded by the late Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva.

After his death in 2019, the party leadership, who were supposed to carry on their former leader’s mission in propagating democracy, became fragmented and fought among themselves.

PTOA lost six seats, including three of their leading representatives. The only  party representatives still in parliament are Semisi Fakahau, Veivosa Taka, and Saia Piukala, and it is generally understood that none of these three are hardcore PTOA supporters. As such, there is good chance these representatives align themselves with the independents to form government.

The People’s Party (PAK), which was without a credible presence during the campaign, retained only one seat, held by the current Prime Minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa.

This election seems to mark the end of an era in which political affiliation, especially with PTOA, was key to determining the future of a politician.

Voters this year seemed more interested in the individual candidate, rather than their political affiliation. Perceptions of individual merit were more important than political affiliation.

It was also not just the number of loses that the major parties suffered, but the magnitude of some of these defeats. Siaosi Pohiva, a key leader of the democracy movement and son of the late ‘Akilisi Pohiva, lost out to independent Tevita Puloka by a convincing margin of 581 votes. Elsewhere Semisi Sika, a prominent PTOA figure who seemed to have built a formidable political presence since 2010, was ousted by the relatively unknown ‘Uhilamoelangi Fasi.

Whilst some credit for these losses should go to many of the independents’ strong campaigns, of much larger influence was the brutal infighting within PTOA.

In the lead up to the election the dominant party faction, named PTOA Core Team, was rocked when Siaosi Pohiva broke away to form his group, named PTOA Komiti (ruled by a Committee). Then, just weeks before voting, the Core Team faction splintered further as two of its most prominent members, Sika and Tapueluelu, fell out.

This infighting resulted in a lack of coordination between candidates, with PTOA candidates running against each other in some electorates, which likely assisted independents to achieve strong results.

Concerningly, turnout fell to its lowest level yet at this election. Of the 62,253 registered voters, 38,550 turned out to vote. From a high point in 2010, where 91 per cent of eligible voters showed up to the polls, this turnout has fallen at every subsequent election – 79 per cent in 2014, 67 per cent in 2017, and just 62 per cent at this election 2021.

Elections Supervisor, Pita Vuki in a conference with reporters said they are still trying to determine the cause behind the decline in voter turnout since 2010. But the decline this year can be due to the fact there are many registered voters who are unable to vote because they are overseas, unable to be repatriated because of the Covid travel restrictions. This includes over two thousand seasonal workers in Australia and New Zealand who are still awaiting repatriation

An interim speaker of parliament will be appointed within 10 days of the election, and a special sitting of the house will facilitate the nomination of candidates for the position of prime minister.

All the 26 elect members of parliament will then vote on a new prime minister, who in turn will appoint a new cabinet. It’s expected that an independent member will win the ballot for prime minister. Siaosi Sovaleni is a strong candidate, as the only member-elect who polled over 2,000 votes.

By the beginning of December, the island kingdom should have a new Government in place. Whoever becomes prime minister will have major challenges on their hands – from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to tackling illicit drugs and widespread corruption. How the new government handles these issues will determine whether the seismic political shifts that unfolded at the election will translate into good governance for the benefit of the Tongan people.

Kalafi Moala

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