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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 187-192

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Kerry James

The triennial general election was held again in March 2002. Democracy supporters claimed that their win of seven of the nine People's Representatives' seats was a conclusive victory for the movement throughout the kingdom. Other observers did not find the outcome so clear-cut.

The Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement (THRDM), which was formed in 1998 to replace the Pro-Democracy Movement, did not formally field candidates for the election because, as it claims to be merely a mass movement that seeks political change, the conditions under which it receives funding from various overseas agencies prevent it from doing so (MT, May 2002, 12-16). After the outcome, however, the movement was quick to claim a win. The most vocal of its representatives—'Akilisi Pohiva, Dr Feleti Sevele, and 'Isileli Pulu, who became the Tongatapu No 1, No 2, and No 3 People's Representatives respectively—claimed [End Page 187] that the result represented a mandate from the people to institute the governmentrestructure that had formed the basis of their campaign. This idea, namely, that all thirty members of the Legislative Assembly (from which the monarch would still appoint his cabinet ministers) be elected by common roll, has been previously aired, discussed, and defeated in parliament in 1992. Although the idea appeared better understood by the electorate than previously, especially in Tongatapu, there is little evidence that the idea was the primary factor that swayed the voters there or in the other island groups. Indeed, pro-government supporters (notably the minister for police, the Honourable Clive Edwards, and Tuisoso, the editor of the government owned and controlled newspaper, Kalonikali [The Tonga Chronicle]) disagreed, and argued that the results merely reflected the usual contest for votes between individuals to see who would enter parliament. They further asserted that it was conducted in the older-style fashion of personalized politics, rather than as an ideological battle over ideas that remain poorly understood by the mass of people. However, these arguments prove rather equivocal, as in several cases the personalized issues tended to coincide with principles.

Three commoners' seats are allocated for Tongatapu, two for each of the Ha'apai and Vava'u groups, and one each for the Niuas and 'Eua. If the result was a nationwide mandate for change, however, it is noteworthy that the voter turnout was the lowest (44.3 percent) in Tongatapu and only 49 percent in the country overall. The smaller islands had higher turnouts: Ha'apai and Vava'u each had 53 percent, and the Niuas and 'Eua had 69 percent and 56 percent respectively. While it is always more difficult to say why people did not vote rather than why they did, the Tongatapu reaction suggests that either a high proportion of registered voters were overseas, or they preferred not to vote because of disenchantment with the candidates or perhaps the whole idea of politics.

It should be noted also that the lead-up to the elections was marked by several disconcerting events. One of the most unprecedented was New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Phil Goff's attacks on the Tongan government's credibility. He suggested in a series of remarks that the level of corruption and the failure to uphold the constitutional rights of its citizens, along with the fact that no major political change was in the offing, might affect the future level of New Zealand aid. The Tongan government regarded this interference in its internal affairs as an impingement on the nation's sovereignty and an attempt to bias the outcome of the forthcoming election. There was also some suggestion in the local press that Goff's remarks were prompted by Pohiva's ongoing efforts to engage the sympathies and actions of larger neighboring Pacific Rim countries for his political ends (TC,9 March 2002, 1).

Another matter that arose was the amount and source of the king's private funds. The issue came closely on the heels of the Tonga Trust debacle, in which US$20 million appeared to have gone missing as a...