In a royal decree yesterday, King Tupou IV of Tonga has dissolved the national parliament and called for a new snap election to be held a year early on 16 November. The sudden decision will be one of the first major tests of the island nation’s young democratic system.
The Kingdom of Tonga held its first major democratic elections in 2010, which for the first time saw the majority of seats elected directly by the Tongan people, with 9 of 26 seats remaining in reserve for the island’s nobility and the King himself. In 2014, the Right Honourable Akilisi Pohiva became the first commoner to be elevated to his current office, as well as the first Prime Minister to be elected rather than appointed by the King of Tonga. The pro-democracy Prime Minister’s tenure has been fraught with political manoeuvring by the various Tongan nobles, and he already managed to survive one vote of no confidence enacted by Tongan nobles earlier this year. Now the King has been asked by the Speaker of Parliament, Lord Tu’ivakano, to dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
The Prime Minister has called this move “a coup”, and has announced that he will run for re-election. In this case, the move to have Pohiva removed from office may well backfire quite spectacularly should he be reelected, as he had previously indicated a desire to resign from politics upon the end of his current term.
As for himself, Lord Tu’ivakano stated his motive for requesting Parliament be dissolved to be due to a long string of controversial decisions made by the government over the past year. In particular, the Speaker condemned Pohiva’s attempts to have the power to appoint the police commissioner and attorney general transferred from the Crown and the Privy Council to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. In his eyes, it demonstrated that the Prime Minister was overextending his reach, and indicated a dangerous attitude.
On Radio New Zealand, Professor Malakai Koloamatangi, of Massey University stated that democracy in Tonga “has still some way to go”, and that the Prime Minister may have been pressing too hard and too quickly for royal authority to be delegated to elected offices.
This new election will very much determine whether Tonga’s experiments in democratic government will hold against its first major challenge from established figures of authority and whether the current Constitution is robust enough to navigate the island peacefully and lawfully through troubled waters.