Freedom in the World
Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano named his new cabinet in January 2011; the appointment of two cabinet members who did not hold any elected positions at the time stirred controversy, and a prominent party leader quit his cabinet position in protest. In December, House Speaker Lord Lasike, who was facing a charge of unlawful possession of ammunition, violated the conditions of his bail agreement and traveled to the United States; a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Tonga consists of 169 islands that King Siaosi I united under his rule in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900, gaining independence in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth. King Tāufa‘āhau Tupou IV ruled from 1945 to 2006. His son, Crown Prince Tupouto‘a, assumed the title King Siaosi Tupou V in 2006 and was officially crowned in 2008.
Politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. Strife between the government and activists promoting democratic reforms resulted in street protests in 2006 that escalated into violent rioting and led to the declaration of a state of emergency. The king eventually entered into talks with the activists, and an agreement was reached in December 2009 providing for the creation of a new 26-member parliament with 17 popularly elected representatives.
Parliamentary elections were held under the new government structure in November 2010. Prodemocracy candidates of the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI) won 12 of the 17 commoners’ seats. In December, parliament chose Lord Tu‘ivakano over the DPFI’s Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva as the new prime minister.
In January 2011, Tu’ivakano’s 12-member cabinet was announced, with 7 members selected by the king and 5 by Tu’ivakano. Two of Tu’ivakano’s selections were not members of parliament, including former lawmaker Clive Edwards, who was named head of the public enterprise and revenue portfolio and a female academic, ʻAna Maui Taufeʻulungaki, with no previous government experience, as head of the education, women’s affairs, and culture department. Just one day into his term, Pohiva quit the cabinet to protest the cabinet appointments of these non-elected officials.
On February 3, the prime minister officially lifted a state of emergency that had been in effect since the 2006 protests.
In December, House Speaker Lord Lasike, who was to face a court hearing on one charge of unlawful possession of ammunition, breached his bail agreement and defied a court order by traveling to the United States, where he was married. A warrant for his arrest was issued on December 23, and he had not returned to Tonga by year’s end.
The economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans living abroad. The global economic downturn has reduced tourist arrivals, overseas remittances, and returns from government investments. In October, the government imposed steep increases for many compulsory government license and service fees in order to raise revenues. In November, China pledged $8 million in technology and economic assistance to Tonga.
Tonga is an electoral democracy. The unicameral Legislative Assembly has 26 members, including 17 popularly elected representatives and 9 nobles elected by their peers; all members serve four-year terms. The king retains the power to appoint the chief justice, judges of the court of appeal, and the attorney general on the advice of the privy council. The privy council, whose members are appointed by the king, lost its power to pass legislation following changes to the government structure in 2010. Additionally, the Legislative Assembly—rather than the king—now selects the prime minister.
Prodemocracy candidates have typically aligned with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which is not a formal party. Several new parties were formed to compete in the 2010 general elections, including the DPFI, the Democratic Labor Party, the Sustainable Nation-Building Party, and the People’s Democratic Party.
Corruption is widespread, with royals, nobles, and their top associates allegedly having used state assets for personal benefit, and transparency and accountability are lacking. In 2011, the government conducted its first audit of parliament since 1999. The report, which covered the second half of 2010, found evidence that fraud and mismanagement had resulted in financial losses for 8 of 13 state enterprises. In June 2011, Lord Tu’ilakepa, a noble and lawmaker, was charged with conspiracy to import illicit drugs. He was alleged to have accepted bribes from Colombian drug lords to use Tonga as conduit to bring tons of cocaine to Australia. He already faced multiple charges of illegal possession of a firearm, ammunition, and illicit drugs from 2010. His case was pending at year’s end.
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press. Although commentaries critical of the government appear regularly in all newspapers, including those owned by the state or in which the state owns shares, the government has a history of suppressing media criticism. In 2011, cabinet member Clive Edwards filed a civil lawsuit against the newspaper Kele’a, claiming that an unfavorable article in the paper had cost him his seat in parliament. In May, the court found Kele’a, its publisher, and its editor guilty of defamation and fined them $8,100 for publishing a false election story. Internet access is not restricted, and the number of users has increased despite high costs and lack of infrastructure.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. Academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.
The judiciary is generally independent, though a shortage of judges has created serious case backlogs. Traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Nobles have increasingly faced scrutiny in society and the courts. Prisons are basic, and are only lightly guarded, as violent crimes are rare. There have been no reports of prisoner abuse.
Women enjoy equal access to education and hold several senior government jobs, though no women were elected in the 2010 elections. Women cannot own land, and domestic violence is common.