WORLD

Will Tonga embrace democracy?

PATRICIA TREBLE May 12 2008
WORLD

Will Tonga embrace democracy?

PATRICIA TREBLE May 12 2008

Will Tonga embrace democracy?

As a sign of just how committed they are to democratic change, the citizens in the South Pacific nation of Tonga elected pro-democracy candidates to all nine contested parliamentary seats last week. It was the first election held since widespread pro-democracy demonstrations swept Polynesia’s only monarchy in 2006. At least eight people died when the marches morphed into riots and most of the capital, Nuku'alofa, was destroyed and remains in virtual ruin.

King Siaosi Tupou V, who has semi-feudal powers over his impoverished nation, was forced to agree that a majority of seats in Tonga’s parliament would be democratically elected as of 2010. The 59-year-old bachelor has also promised to sell off his extensive business holdings that make him Tonga’s richest man. With just 120,000 people spread over 170 coral islands, Tonga is largely dependent on remittances from expatriates and the export of squash, vanilla beans and other agrarian products. Half the population lives below the poverty line.

Despite jubilation at the election results, the campaign was marred by irregularities. In a move decried by pro-democracy candidates as censorship, the state-owned broadcaster suddenly introduced new restrictions that banned staff from hosting election programs and barred pre-recorded election material that hadn’t been approved by the prime minister. In addition, opposition politicians complained that the government uses state-of-emergency powers, imposed after the riots, to intimidate reformists.

The nine new elected “common” MPs will be joined in parliament by 15 ministers, including the PM, selected by the king, as well as nine representatives chosen from among Tonga’s 29 “nobles.” Pro-democracy leader and MP Akilisi Pohiva has a busy year ahead of him. In addition to nailing down the government on an exact reform process, he and five other elected politicians will stand trial on charges of sedition for inciting the 2006 riots. M

PATRICIA TREBLE