University of Hawai'i Press

Since the 2010 constitutional review and subsequent elections in 2010 and 2014, the Kingdom of Tonga's forays into the world of democracy have been fraught with multiple challenges. This is to be expected from a nascent democracy journeying through a transitional phase, toward a new political culture based on popular electoral choice and away from the age-old hereditary system of rule that has been at the cornerstone of Tonga's sociopolitical power structure since 1875, when the first constitution was devised. Between June 2016 and the end of August 2017, the government of 'Akilisi Pōhiva—the first elected commoner prime minister—went through a series of crises leading to a failed parliamentary vote of no confidence in February 2017. [End Page 204] The continuing crises culminated in a constitutional coup of sorts by the king, who intervened at the behest of the opposition noble parliamentarians and invoked his power to dissolve Parliament on 24 August 2017. Ironically, although it was the target of the parliamentary dissolution, Pōhiva's government had to continue in a caretaker capacity until 16 November when new elections were scheduled to take place.

Both 2016 and 2017 were rocky years for the new government of Pōhiva, a longtime prodemocracy activist whose commoner-led government came to power after the 2014 general elections. It was not smooth sailing for the government's attempts for reform. Among these attempts were proposals for changes in the structure and operations of the government's public service, which has been generally considered inefficient in the past. As part of the reform, the Tonga Remuneration Authority reviewed and proposed changes to the salary structure in mid-2016. In response to this, the Tonga Public Service Association presented petitions opposing the reforms on the grounds that they had "overlooked employees' concerns" (Matangi Tonga 2016). Unlike previous practice, the new structure was based on performance, rather than on an automatic salary increase every year. This can be seen as part of a recent wave of neoliberal reform in civil service in the Pacific, and as also seen in countries like Fiji.

Tonga's regional and international engagement had been growing, as shown in the deployment of its military forces in Afghanistan. As an expanding, active military force, His Majesty's Armed Forces (hmaf) carried out exercises with other defense partners such as New Zealand, the United States, China, and France. In the first week of July 2016, hmaf and its defense partners performed extensive exercises meant to boost the hmaf's response capacity to emergencies such as natural disasters. The chief of the Royal New Zealand Navy was also in Tonga around the same time for bilateral defense talks to strengthen close military ties between the two countries (nzdf 2016).

On the political front, the by- election to fill the parliamentary seat left vacant by former Minister for Education 'Etuate Lavulavu (who had been found guilty of bribery) took place on 14 July 2016. Interestingly, the seat was secured by 'Akosita Lavulavu, the wife of 'Etuate Lavulavu, who outpolled three other candidates (Tonga Ministry of Information and Communications 2016).

Forging international relations was important for Tonga's young democracy. Thus, on 28 July, Prime Minister Pōhiva visited New Zealand at the invitation of John Key, his New Zealand counterpart. Bilateral discussions between the ministers revolved around New Zealand's role in Tonga's development, trade, and seasonal workers, among other issues. Accompanying Pōhiva was a group including Minister for Public Enterprises Poasi Tei; Minister for Revenue and Customs Tevita Lavemaau; Lord Vaea Tongatapu, who is the nobles' number 1 representative for Tongatapu; Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet Dr Palenitina Langa'oi; and Secretary for Foreign Affairs Va'inga Tone (tnews 2016).

Tonga's international links [End Page 205] expanded further after establishing diplomatic relations with Poland on 31 August through a joint communiqué in New York between Tonga's UN representative, Mahe'uli'uli Tupouniua, and Poland's UN representative, Boguslaw Winid. Poland has previously established diplomatic relations with Pacific island states such as Nauru, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Tuvalu (Radio Poland 2016). This estimable event was followed two weeks later by another scandal. On 14 September, Minister for Internal Affairs Sosefo Vakata resigned after allegations that he threw a glass of wine at the acting deputy director of the women's division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Tupou'ahau Fakakovikaetau, accusing her of insubordination (Latu 2016).

The latter half of 2016 was a mixed bag of moments of pride for Tonga, coupled with scandalous happenings that proved to be challenging for the government. Despite these, Pōhiva and his government survived the attempts to undermine their credibility. The first half of 2017, however, proved to be full of history-making events.

After three years in power, Pōhiva's government came under increasing pressure from Parliament due to what critics saw as its questionable decisions. Under the amended 2010 constitution, a vote of no confidence can only be carried out eighteen months after a general election, and before the last six months prior to the next general election. On 2 February 2017, the Speaker of the legislative assembly, Lord Tu'ivakanō, received the notice of a no-confidence motion signed by ten members. This included seven noble representatives—Lord Tu'ilakepa (who tabled the motion), Lord Tu'iha'angana, Lord Fusitu'a, Lord Tu'i'afitu, Lord Tu'iha'ateiho, Lord Nuku, and Lord Vaea—and three people's representatives—Samiu Vaipulu, Vili Hingano, and Fe'ao Vakata (rnz 2017c). During the vote on 27 February, Pōhiva's government survived with fourteen votes compared to ten votes against him. Minister for Finance 'Aisake Eke abstained. Lord Ma'afu, who was a member of Pōhiva's government, was the only member of the nobility who voted against the motion (rnz 2017d).

The motion was in response to what its supporters referred to as "poor governance, nepotism and favoritism" (Parliament of Tonga 2017). Most of the examples provided were related to appointments to senior government positions—including the appointment of Pōhiva's son as an advisor (although he was not on government payroll)—that were deemed in breach of either existing regulations or public ethics. The prime minister's opponents also criticized his political stand supporting West Papuan independence, arguing that it was going to anger Indonesia and thus damage and undermine Tonga's international image (rnz 2017c).

It appeared that the antiPōhiva group tried to dig up almost every conceivable decision and activity by the government and then construct scandals around them as a means of justifying their complaints. Beneath the surface was the deeper, long-running tension between the nobles and the pro-democracy groups of which Pōhiva has been the leader. In June 2012, Pōhiva and his group had [End Page 206] tabled a vote of no confidence against then Prime Minister Lord Tu'ivakanō and his government, and this time around it was Pōhiva's turn to be on the receiving end of the tit-for-tat war (Royal Oceania Institute 2017). Despite the electoral reform and the elections, this political dichotomy and related contestation for power will continue to be a major factor in shaping Tonga's political terrain.

Amid the political wrangling, February 2017 was a sad month for Tonga after the beloved queen mother passed away in Auckland at the age of ninety. Her body was flown home for the traditional ceremonies and burial on 1 March (New Zealand Herald 2017; rnz 2017e). In March there was a major reshuffle of the cabinet, which was approved by the king on 9 March (pir 2017). The reshuffle followed the forced resignation of Minister of Finance 'Aisake Eke and was also an attempt by Pōhiva to strengthen his support within Parliament and bring about coherence and discipline in his cabinet.

On 15 May 2017, the government announced that it was withdrawing its decision to host the 2019 Pacific Games. The reason provided was that, given the state of the economy, the government was not in a position to fund the games, and thus the previous government's successful bid to host the games was a "costly mistake" (Stuff NZ 2017). The government based its decision on a World Bank report that cautioned that Tonga's financial woes would be exacerbated if it hosted the games (Chakraborty 2017). Held every four years, the multisport event requires the host country to develop its sports infrastructure to international standards. The decision not to hold the Pacific Games sent shock waves around the Pacific as the Pacific Games Council (pgc) then had to make emergency decisions, subsequently calling for expressions of interests from other countries at short notice. Guam, Sāmoa, and French Polynesia responded by putting forward bids.

While the World Bank report provided a convenient justification to forego hosting the games, another significant factor in the decision was the volatile relationship between Pōhiva and the chief executive officer (ceo) and chair of the Tonga Organizing Committee (toc), former Prime Minister Lord Dr Feleti Sevele—a political adversary of Pōhiva's since the destructive riots of November 2006. Pōhiva consistently argued that Sevele and his government were to be blamed for the riots because of their delay in making a decisive stand on the constitutional reform, and Sevele accused Pōhiva of attempting to instigate a coup. This long-running animosity may have influenced Pōhiva's decision to remove Sevele from the position of ceo of toc in May 2016. The pgc declared this move "null and void," however, as the power to hire and fire Sevele rested with the toc or the pgc itself (pir 2016).

The desire by the government to terminate its hosting obligations was not surprising. On 11 October 2016, Pōhiva declared in Parliament that he doubted the country's ability to host the games in 2019 (rnz 2016). A number of reasons were suggested to support this assertion. First, there was doubt about whether the upgrade of Teufaiva Stadium and the construction [End Page 207] of new sporting facilities at Tonga High School would be ready by May 2017 as scheduled. Second, the government considered the annual grant of us$460,000 requested by the toc as excessive and the ceo's salary as unjustifiably high. Another reason given by the government was that they had not found any land on which to build an eighteen-hole golf course for the games. A piece of land was finally found in January 2017 at Siumafua'uta, Popua, but the irony was that, although Tonga was no longer hosting the Pacific Games, the golf course was still being built. In addition to concerns about the course's archaeological and environmental impact, attempts by Parliament to ask the government to provide the budget and other technical details about the golf course consistently failed. Another controversial project associated with the golf course was a canal that was also built in the Popua area under the supervision of the prime minister for beautification purposes (Latu 2017; Fonua 2017a).

Recognition of Tonga's role in regional networking was manifested in the opening of the first Pacific Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in Nuku'alofa on 26 April. The event was attended by a number of Pacific leaders. Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni stated, "This centre of excellence will provide valuable support to Pacific Island countries and territories towards progressing their respective priorities and commitments for achieving sustainable energy" (Matangi Tonga 2017a).

One of the most regionally talked-about events in Tonga for the year to date was the signing of the pacer-plus free trade agreement on 14 June by members of the Pacific Island Forum, excluding Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu (which later changed its mind), all of which have refrained from committing themselves to the agreement (Matangi Tonga 2017b). The agreement has been consistently pushed by Australia and New Zealand and there are worries about the fact that it does not guarantee any long-term benefits for small Pacific Island economies. At the same time, there is also anxiety about possible negative impacts on the fragile economies of the small island states.

One of the celebrated events in June 2017 was the completion of the new Tongan government office building, St George Palace at Pangai Si'i in the Central Business District. The building—which will house the prime minister's office, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of finance, ministry of national planning, and other government departments—was funded through Chinese aid to Tonga. The handover certificate was signed on 22 June by the Deputy Prime Minister Sovaleni and China's new ambassador to Tonga, Wang Baodong (Matangi Tonga 2017c).

Another significant event was the visit to Tonga by New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English from June 15 to 17 to inspect NZ aid projects in Tongatapu, as well as to have meetings with the king, prime minister, and other ministers. Pōhiva praised New Zealand's support for democracy in Tonga and expressed his desire to carry out more democratic reforms in Tonga (Fonua 2017b). Pōhiva's comments were later questioned in Parliament by an opposition member [End Page 208] who argued that such statements were irresponsible and were to be kept locally and not publicized internationally, especially to a foreign leader.

On 25 July 2017, the Tongan Supreme Court dismissed an application for the judicial review of the firing of the general manager of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (tbc) (rnz, 2017b). In May, the prime minister had terminated Nanise Fifita's contract at the tbc, accusing the organization of being an "enemy of government," although her position was eligible for renewal when her contract came to an end. Chief Justice Owen Paulsen made it clear that Fifita's reappointment needed the approval of the minister for public enterprise, but this was never done.

The most dramatic event in Tonga in the period under review and perhaps since the November 2006 riots was the sudden and unexpected dissolution of Parliament by the king on 24 August 2017. The instrument of dissolution of Parliament by the king was detailed in a gazette on 25 August, although it took effect from 5pm on 24 August. It declared: "WE, TUPOU VI, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, OF TONGA, KING: HAVING CONSIDERED Advice from the Lord Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and HAVING REGARD to Clauses 38 and 77(2) of The Act of Constitution of Tonga (Cap. 2) DO lawfully dissolve the Legislative Assembly with effect from Thursday 24 August 2017 at 1700 hours and DO Command that new Representatives of the Nobles and People be elected to enter the Legislative Assembly at Elections to be held no later than 16 November 2017. DONE by Us at Nuku'alofa this Twenty Fourth day of August in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen and in this the Sixth Year of Our Reign. Tupou VI" (Government of Tonga 2017).

Clause 38 of the amended 2010 constitution still gives the king considerable interventionist powers: "The King may convoke the Legislative Assembly at any time and may dissolve it at his pleasure and command that new representatives of the nobles and people be elected to enter the assembly" (Government of Tonga 2010). This provision on the king's power is reiterated in clause 77(2) on elections: "It shall be lawful for the King, at his pleasure, to dissolve the Legislative Assembly at any time and command that new elections be held" (Government of Tonga 2010). However, clause 38 also states that "it shall not be lawful for the Kingdom to remain without a meeting of the Assembly for a longer period than one year," thus the suggestion that the elections be held no later than 16 November.

The only constitutionally legal way of removing the government—the real target of the dissolution—was to dissolve Parliament. Ironically, the cabinet under Pōhiva was to continue ruling until the next election on 16 November. This was the only option available since there is no constitutional provision for the appointment of a new prime minister in the case of such dissolution. Pōhiva referred to the situation as a "failed coup" because, although he was the target of the dissolution, they could not completely remove him and his government (Morrah 2017). [End Page 209]

The king's action followed a presentation to him by the Speaker of the legislative assembly, Lord Tu'ivakanō, and was based on eight grievances read out on the tbc radio service on the evening of 28 August, which were then translated and sent to me by Lopeti Senituli, former director of the pro-democracy movement and political advisor to former Prime Minister Sevele. The grievances were (1) that a bill (draft legislation) had been submitted to the office of the Speaker that seeks to amend the constitution so as to revoke His Majesty's right of assent to legislations approved by the legislative assembly before it could become law; (2) that the intent of the bill is in keeping with the cabinet's earlier plans to bypass His Majesty's prerogative to sign treaties and conventions entrenched in clause 39 of the Constitution when they tried to sign and ratify cedaw without His Majesty's prior approval; (3) that cabinet had also become party to pacer-Plus without His Majesty's prior approval; (4) that another bill had also been submitted to the office of the Speaker that seeks to amend the constitution so as to remove His Majesty in privy council's right to appoint crucial positions such as the police commissioner and the attorney general; (5) that Hon Prime Minister Pōhiva had intervened and prevented the legislative assembly from sanctioning former cabinet minister 'Etuate Lavulavu for abuse of office on the understanding that he would punish him instead. It later became apparent that he did not punish Lavulavu as promised; (6) that several petitions have been submitted to the office of the Speaker that seek to impeach various members of the legislative assembly and the Speaker feels spending time on these petitions would be a waste of time and resources; (7) that cabinet had deliberately misled the legislative assembly regarding the hosting of the 2019 Pacific Games and, after the legislation was passed authorizing the collection of the foreign exchange levy tax in order to fund it, continued to collect this tax despite canceling the games; and (8) that cabinet had recently approved a 5 percent salary increase for all ministers in response to a recent increase in income tax, yet the tax increase applies to the whole country especially all the civil servants and people in private enterprises (Lopeti Senituli, pers comm, 29 Aug 2017).

When the board members of the Public Service Association (psa) visited Pōhiva on 26 August, they were given a positive message of encouragement to continue with the good work, even if there was no Parliament or cabinet. Pōhiva told them that he was "at peace" and conveyed his love for the people of Tonga. In what may appear to be a subtle rebuke of the Tongan monarch, psa Secretary General Mele 'Amanaki declared, "In God we put our trust in Him as He is the King of Tonga (my emphasis) and the Universe" ('Amanaki 2017).

The intervention by the king may have deeper implications on Tonga's embryonic democracy because of fear that Parliament may remain subservient to the whims of the monarch. The question is, will these reasons used to justify the dissolution survive legal challenges if Pōhiva seeks injunction and judicial review of the king's proclamation? Some political and legal commentators on Tonga do not think [End Page 210] so ('Amanaki 2017). However, in a statement two days later, Pōhiva said that he respected the king's decision and was not going to mount a court challenge. Although he initially stated that he was going to stand in the next election, he later reversed this stand saying that he will still think about it (rnz 2017a).

The period under review has been tremendously transformative for the kingdom because its newly constructed democratic institutions and norms were under immense pressure. The age-old contestation between the privileged nobles and the commoners cannot be discounted, despite the newly amended constitution and the recent democratic elections. Democracy has the potential to be deployed as leverage by self-elected, feudalistic nobles who are out to use constitutional means to reclaim their lost privileges and power. The year 2017 will go down in Tongan history as the first attempt at constitutional coup making. In Fiji, the military intervenes in civilian politics to serve a particular political agenda and, in Tonga, the king does the job just as effectively.

Steven Ratuva

steven ratuva is the director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies as well as professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has previously held positions in a number of universities and has published extensively in the areas of development, political change, social protection, affirmative action, elections, political parties, regional politics, coups, and indigenous intellectual property rights. A political sociologist, he has transdisciplinary research interests across such areas as sociology, anthropology, politics, philosophy, economics, and development studies.


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