Tonga’s new king: where next for the democracy movement?

New king Tupou VI greets NZ governor general

Byron Clark

Following the death of Tonga’s King Tupou V, his younger brother, Tupouto’a Lavaka, now known as Tupou VI, has been crowned king. Lavaka, considered to be more conservative than his brother, served as the country’s Prime Minister until his resignation in February 2006. While he gave no reason for his resignation, its generally accepted that it was prompted by the huge social unrest brought about by protests demanding increased democracy. The protests turned into riots that destroyed most of the central business district in the capital Nuku’alofa, and as a result delayed King Tupou V’s coronation until 2008. The Democracy movement can take credit for reforms under Tupou V that saw his powers diminished and the number of elected members of parliament raise from nine to seventeen in the thirty seat house.

If Lavaka doesn’t deliver further reform Tonga may yet see further unrest. The young generation are not as pro-monarchy as older Tongans, and the country has a very young population. Tonga is also experiencing economic troubles. “Most of our youth don’t have any jobs,” petrol station attendant Tevita Moala told media after Tupou V’s funeral. “People just move overseas, where they can get a job and get more money.” Tongas economy is heavily indebted, owing $120 million to China. Remittances from Tongans working overseas make up a large part of the nations GDP, and remittances have been falling. Akilisi Pohiva, leader of the opposition Democracy Party described the economy as “going down the gurgler”

Pohiva is currently pushing a private members bill through parliament that if successful will see all members of parliament democratically elected. “We want a fully elected government simply because we want a government which is accountable,” he told Radio New Zealand International “we need to have a government which appreciates the rule of law and also a government which is transparent. This is what we want to see happen in the future. Under the current government there are still quite a few checks and balance mechanisms to be put in place.”

Democracy Party won 70% of the vote in 2010 elections

An anti-corruption commission is another reform the Democracy Party is pushing for.

Pohiva has been a Democracy activist for thirty years, the party he leads holds twelve of the ‘commoner’ seats in parliament. He was expected to become prime minster following the last election but the five other commoner members crossed the floor to vote with the nobles allowing an aristocrat, Lord Tu’ivakano, to be elected as prime minister. While Pohiva has been critical of Tu’ivakano for his lack of commitment to anti-corruption measures, he believes Lavaka “Will be a good king”. Ian Campbell, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, told Radio New Zealand International that rolling back Tongas democratic reforms would be “impossible”

Others are not so confident though, Melino Maka, Chairman of the Tongan Advisory Council criticised the decisions Lavaka made as prime minister, saying he would have to not make the same mistakes as king if he is to maintain the support of the people- “There’s no second chance.”. Maka told 3 News that he fears the new king “could decide to take back all powers his brother relinquished”. The next few years will certainly be interesting ones for Polynesia’s last monarchy.

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