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  • Tonga
  • Steven Ratuva (bio)

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...