Bye ‘Akilisi

Jacinda Ardern meme parodying the 2003 American film, Kill Bill. Photograph: Nathan Williams.

If something was up about Tonga’s snap election on November 16th, then it looked and felt a bit like the New Zealand performance of Bye Bill.  Here’s the plot.  Jacinda Ardern won the prime ministership for Labour in a coalition government negotiated by veteran politician and New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters.

These were the odds she was up against.  Ardern broke National’s stronghold.  They’d dominated politics by running the country for three terms; that’s 9 straight years.  Her strategy for becoming the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand and heading the 9th Labour led government was clear-cut.

“The economy, stupid.”  Seriously.  Arguably Ardern’s campaign adapted James Carville’s political strategy.  It’d won Bill Clinton and the US Democratic Party the 1992 presidential bid from the Republican Party’s George W. Bush.

Maddison Northcott for Stuff New Zealand noted Ardern’s most important line from the leaders’ debate against outgoing Prime Minister and National Party leader, Bill English.

 

The question we have to ask ourselves here is – is this as good as it gets?  It is ultimately about whether or not families are earning enough to survive.

Jacinda Ardern

 

Definitely the sentiments struck a chord with her coalition partner, Winston Peters.  After two weeks of negotiations, he publicly announced on Thursday October 19th that New Zealand First was getting hitched to a Labour led government.  Importantly, he underlined why the relationship would gel.

Winston Peters. Photograph: The Daily Blog.

Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe.  And they are not all wrong.  That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face.  That perception has influenced our negotiations.  The truth is that after 32 years of the neoliberal experiment, the character and quality of our country has changed dramatically, and much of it for the worse.

Winston Peters

 

By Peters’ judgement “the core aspects of every adult life” were simply “a home and a job.”  What’s so hard about that?  Historically, he’d pinned the blame on neoliberal economic policies.  Ironically, this was first introduced to the New Zealand state by the fourth Labour government of Prime Minister David Lange.

Neoliberalism?  It’s an economic model of open market trade with the least amount of government regulation over private sector businesses.  The popular criticism is that it’s widened the income gap between rich and poor people, rich and poor countries in fact, to an extreme level.  In today’s world, most wealth rests in the hands of a few Western corporates and banks.

Stephen Levine, Professor of Political Science at Victoria University, wrote an article for East Asia Forum capturing New Zealand’s September 23rd election in a snapshot.  What turned the election around to Jacinda Ardern was that voters exhibited an “openness to new personalities.”

 

Whatever happens, New Zealand’s 2017 election demonstrated that the openness to new personalities, evident in Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron, was to be found even in this small South Pacific democracy.

Stephen Levine

Jacinda Ardern. Photograph: George FM.

In New Zealand’s case, “openness” to new political leadership was cultivated by Ardern competing against an older and more experienced opponent, Bill English.  Her real triumph wasn’t out manoeuvring him at gathering coalition partners for a majority government.  Rumoured was that New Zealand First was always going to form an alliance with Labour because they’d give Peters the cabinet portfolios his party coveted.

Rather, it was that Arden won the public’s confidence by demonstrating she wasn’t “too young and inexperienced for the job.”  On August 27th, a month before the election, Dale Husband for E-Tangata signalled that the winning card was changing the attitude of New Zealanders to accept younger political leadership.

 

But there’s no longer a sense that the Nats [National Party] are in for a comfy cruise to victory.  One of her challenges is to dispel any notion that she may be too young and inexperienced for the job of prime minister.

Dale Husband

 

On a different note altogether, after Ardern’s administration had been formed, Tim Watkin for Radio New Zealand stressed a systematic glitch.  Negotiations between major players for a Prime Minister and coalition government was an important part of the deal, which the public were deliberately kept out of.

 

Again, I’ve no problem with a party with the balance of power [like New Zealand First] maximising that power.  But the major parties could have laid out some bottom lines of their own – before or after the election – as to what was on and off the table.  We should learn for next time and expect more from the major parties in setting the terms of these negotiations.  It suits them to keep their options open to bid anything they want for power, but it does a disservice to voters.

Time Watkin

Siaosi Sovaleni (left), ‘Akilisi Pohiva (centre), Tevita Lavemaau (right). Photograph: Matangi Tonga.

 

 

Levine’s framing of the New Zealand election is wholly relevant to revitalizing the political health of Tonga’s “South Pacific democracy.”  For many Tongans at home and overseas, their election chorus is similar to what New Zealand voters have chanted: change the leadership, change the government.

But it’s how the change will roll out when Tonga’s Legislative Assembly votes for the Prime Minister that’s worrisome.  Watkin’s words resonate in Tongan anxieties.

By this, we mean that once the New Zealand election for MPs was out of the way, the process to secure a Prime Minister and government became clouded and complicated.  Simply because there was a “lack of transparency in these [coalition] negotiations and deals done behind closed doors.”

Tonga’s no different.  As soon as the 26 MPs are elected, there’ll be a scramble to change the Prime Minister and the government by assembling the larger number of parliamentarians to elect a new Prime Minister.

When that time comes, it’ll be “deals done behind closed doors” and an acute lack of transparency as to which MPs have been promised what ministerial portfolios if they vote for a new Prime Minister over the last one.

‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: The Tonga Herald.

As for the outgoing Prime Minister, he’s winding up to walk back in the House to resume his role.  The reality is, if the opportunity arises, ‘Akilisi Pohiva will challenge for the government leadership.

Despite anti Pohiva pundits insinuating he’s got no show, their speculations aren’t evidenced by formal and consistent electoral surveys, such as the TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll.  Without hard data to verify election predictions, their guess is as good as the rival news outlets backing Pohiva’s return to power.

Truth: constituency votes for the Tongatapu 1 seat, currently held by ‘Akilisi Pohiva, are spread thin with 11 candidates standing.  The unknown quantity is Pohiva’s baseline supporters.  The Democratic Party may indeed have the voters to push him across the line if he musters his people’s loyalty, which he has the experience to pull off.

Sovaleni supporters. Photograph: Siaosi Sovaleni Ma’a Tongatapu 3.

In Tonga’s case, the two prominent political names for re-election are Siaosi Sovaleni and Akilisi Pohiva.  The competition is building up to be the 2017 political turning point.  Sovaleni is a younger generation leader.  Pohiva, an old guard politician.

If a new government head emerges in Tonga, then that game-changer is more than likely going to be the former Deputy Prime Minister, Siaosi Sovaleni.  Unfairly dismissed by the outgoing Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, he now finds himself fronting his old boss for a fair crack at the premier’s parliamentary election.

But there’s two sore points vexing the public, which the media aren’t openly debating.  First of all, after electing 17 people’s representatives to parliament, the people have no actual say in voting for their preferred Prime Minister.

Subsequently, there are sizeable overseas settlements of Tongans in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States who aren’t permitted to vote in the homeland election.  If they could, the possibility of swinging the vote to even up independent MPs and Democratic Party MPs would be amplified.

Compared to Tongans at home, the diaspora are informed on strategic voting.  From voting in overseas elections, they’ve developed a heightened awareness not to waste their vote on minor players who don’t have a chance to make it into parliament, let alone government.

To change the Prime Minister, voters have to be strategically geared towards getting more independent MPs into seats.  That way, Sovaleni, an independent candidate, would be in a stronger position to garner support from the people’s representatives to swing the vote up in the House.

Lord Tu’ivakano. Photograph: Radio New Zealand.

Would he get the nobles bloc of 9 representatives on side?  If the alternative candidate for Prime Minister was Pohiva, tick Sovaleni.  It’s no national secret the dissolution of parliament was mobilised by a noble MP faction wanting to sink Pohiva’s premiership and Democratic Party government.

See, here’s the thing.  Tonga’s invented a strange model of a mixed member proportional voting system where the government is decided by two ballots.  Oddly, however, the voting population over the age of 21 are excluded from the important poll for Prime Minister.

To restate this; first, a people’s election is held.  Voters choose by ballot the majority of parliament’s people’s representatives at 17 seats, compared to the nobility’s 9, which is a private ballot for noblemen.  Second, there’s the Prime Minister’s election, which is exclusively for the 26 parliamentarians.

By contrast, the nobles election seems a clandestine affair closed off to public scrutiny.  Distinguishing it from the people’s representatives election, is that it’s organised by an outdated convention of the not-so-democratic kind.

Noblemen convene in private at the Palace Office on Election Day.  They talk among themselves, and choose their 9 representatives from 30 titled men with estates.  Plus, there’s a few others who also vote.  The former monarch, George Tupou V, gave them life peerages.

How does the election of 9 nobles’ representatives take place in practice?  Is it a fair process free of coercion?  Asked no journalist ever.

‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Radio New Zealand.

At the Prime Minister’s election, the method for deciding a government leader is to tally the majority of parliament’s 26 votes.  Although it appears straightforward enough, really, it’s fraught with tension.

Since the 2010 reform, the Prime Minister’s ballot has been closely contested.  In 2010, Lord Tu’ivakano won against Akilisi Pohiva, 14 votes to 12 votes.  And in 2014, ‘Akilisi Pohiva won against Samiu Vaipulu, 15 votes to 11.

By no means would a snap election in 2017 produce a different competition.  The scenario of a tight race is bound to ensue.  With that, comes a losing side of brooding MPs harbouring grudges against the winning team.

In the past, the pattern of political behaviour has been nothing less than two-faced and hostile.  Because instead of focusing on the opposition’s role of holding the government to account by institutional checks and balances, the opposition has stirred the pot of political instability.

The dissolving of parliament on August 25th illustrated that the noble MPs in opposition could trample over parliament’s conflict resolution mechanisms – fundamental to a functional state system, by swaying the monarch to dismantle the House.

Fact: a Tongan leader winning parliament’s vote by a narrow margin inherited a monster opposition dead set on upending his government.  At the very least, a disgruntled opposition can stage a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, backed up with impeachment threats.  At its absolute worst, a faction of noble MPs can persuade the monarch to dissolve parliament, effectively sacking the government.

These tales of treachery from the Tu’ivakano and Pohiva administrations are true.  The crucial query is, would similar circumstances transpire during the government term from 2017 to 2021?

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: IISD Reporting.

Bluntly, if Siaosi Sovaleni successfully comes through the centre at the Prime Minister’s election, he’d see testing times ahead.  These days, a Prime Minister is expected to manage repeated attacks aimed at toppling him.

A contentious stage of political actors has been scripted already.  Pohiva’s Democratic Party will be aggrieved at having their four-year government term swiped from under them, a year short.  On top of that, the 9 nobles’ seats look up in the air.

Generational factions between senior and junior nobles are yet to settle down after a splinter faction plotted parliament’s dissolution.  To the nobility’s detriment, they’ve all been tarnished by a class war triggered by a few.  An unsavoury public impression, it’s a setback to those who weren’t involved.

Over the next four years, one major undertaking is to upgrade the political software of parliamentarians.  This means, progressing the operating information that the conservative nobles and the leftist Democratic Party use to read their opponents, understand politics, and manoeuvre by.

Jacinda Ardern. Photograph: Mark Mitchell, Newstalk ZB.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, explained it best.  She became a MP after the New Zealand parliamentary system changed to a mixed member proportional ballot.  New Zealanders now have two votes; one for a candidate, and one for a party.  Parliament’s size has upped to 120 seats to make room for more members elected by the party vote.

It “changed the political environment,” Ardern remarked.  And this is an important point that a candidate like Sovaleni, who’s ranked highly for the Prime Minister’s ballot, also faces.  He’s come into politics after Tonga’s 2010 reform, which means, like Ardern, he’s not an old-school politician from the past.

 

MMP [mixed member proportional] has changed the political environment markedly.  It’s really changed.  It’s forced us to be more collaborative.  As has the Select Committee process.  So there are elements in our political system that are starting to reflect that.  And I’d like our political environment to be less combative.  That combativeness comes from the Westminster system.  But it flies in the face of the way New Zealanders like to operate.

Jacinda Ardern

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: IISD Reporting.

That’s the hard part.  On the political spectrum Sovaleni’s a centrist.  He’s a moderate whose politics don’t swing about from left to right.  His policies are pragmatically driven by real politik – the country’s economic and security interests, and not by political ideology.

His problem is the conservative nobles and leftist Democrats have ruled Tongan politics unchallenged by an integrative or collaborative way of doing politics.  To make a post-reform system work, they have to ease up on belligerent behaviours that cancel each other out.  Period.

But are they willing to learn a new political text on developing the economy to achieve a dual goal of eliminating poverty and building resilience to climate change?  If MPs don’t want to cooperate, and instead, pursue hard-line partisan politics, will the House rules measure up this time around?

It’s law that a noble MP sits in the role of parliament’s speaker.  Can the public be assured that a noble will be objective when resolving conflict?  Or would a noble speaker aggravate any hostility towards a people’s led government that came from his class group in opposition?

Undoubtedly, Sovaleni signifies a much needed shift away from the old-guard to a younger generation leader from the people’s representatives.  Different to the 9 nobles, the peoples MPs possess a public mandate from being voted into the legislature by the general population.

An upbeat computational scientist with regional work experience, here was an articulate, open minded, and forward thinking politician.  Highly skilled at making governance, policy, and process improve the quality of life for ordinary people, he represented the quintessential modern leader with wide appeal to Tongans at home and abroad.

‘Akilisi Pohiva’s Democratic Party. Photograph: Tongan Democratic Party.

The brutal reality, however, was that the numbers racket dominated politics in the House.  He who has the majority of MPs backing him in the legislature rules the roost, whether or not the general population fancies that politician to be the Prime Minister.

If Pohiva did return to office, it wasn’t because most Tongans wanted him as Prime Minister for a second term.  That’s a far-fetched story, despite the pro-Democratic Party media singing his party’s praises.  More, it’s that ‘Akilisi Pohiva can play the numbers game in parliament like a wily veteran politician.

As the grand old party head, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, went for the tactical advantage.  Deploying a cat-and-mouse strategy in his election campaign, he simulated a political game of chess with his opponent.  Why?  It’s a manoeuvre that can psyche out a virgin challenger thirty years his junior.

This is applicable to Sovaleni’s situation.  On Saturday October 7th he launched his first flotilla of a series heading into Election Day, which exhibited a large number of supporters.  Not to be outdone, the Democratic Party gate-crashed his campaign festivity by officially announcing their candidate list for the 17 electorates.

Kaniva Tonga’s headline faced off Sovaleni and Pohiva as arch political rivals: Sovaleni’s supporters show their power as Democratic Party releases party list.

Sovaleni supporters. Photograph: Siaosi Sovaleni Ma’a Tongatapu 3.

Unexpectedly, the election turned orange.  The candidate colour for Sovaleni’s re-election campaign as the Tongatapu 3 people’s representative, orange made a bold statement.

Sovaleni’s constituency voters stood in solidarity: they were rallying for their MP all the way to the Prime Minister’s ballot.  They sent an upfront message to his rival camp at the Democratic Party headquarters.  The orange team might be new to electioneering for their MP candidate to be the next Prime Minister, but they were organised, resourceful, and determined.

Supplementing grassroots campaigning in local villages and neighbourhoods with online canvassing via social media, they drew in national and overseas support.  Akilisi Pohiva was not the only politician capable of mobilising a people’s movement for social change.

Siaosi Sovaleni door to door campaigning for re-election in his constituency, Tongatapu 3. Photograph: Kolo Fakaanga.

If anything progressive has come from parliament’s dissolution and an early election, it’s that change now hinges on the possibility an independent MP can challenge, and win against, a political party at the Prime Minister’s ballot.

‘Aisake Eke, a former finance minister who was also undeservedly fired by Prime Minister Pohiva, was contesting his seat for Tongatapu 5.  He figured independent MPs would soon be phased out by a system of “political parties.”

In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Eke asserted that formalising a party system by Tongan law “will be the next stage of our political development.”

 

All the countries in the Pacific, except Tonga and Kiribati who haven’t had a formal system for political parties, (they are the only two countries in the Pacific), so we can learn from what actually happened or has actually occurred and then form the basis of [a] political party system that is appropriate for us.  That will be the next stage of our political development.

‘Aisake Eke

 

As a campaign tactic, Eke’s media comment got him public attention.  But as a policy, it wasn’t altogether constructive.  The flaw here was that he’d failed to consider why the ideal of standing as an independent appealed to many voters.  It’s the relationship.

By this, independent MPs are directly accountable to their constituents and communities.  Party politicians, on the other hand, are married to the party hierarchy before their voters.

The “next stage of our political development,” to paraphrase Eke, was more to ensure equal leverage for both independents and parties to be included in the parliamentary system.  And not, by any means, for one to exclude the other.

‘Aisake Eke. Photograph: Nuku’alofa Times.

So what about the economy stupid?  Applying Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and Ardern’s 2017 Prime Ministerial win to the Tongan election 2017, there’s a malfunction.

We have 86 candidates competing for 17 seats.  And only a handful, if that, are campaigning on comprehensive economic development policies that grow jobs and trade for the country.  Which is why Sovaleni’s got the upper hand at working smart for the dual ballots – his constituency and the premier’s election.

To strengthen democracy, Tonga needs critical media coverage of policies not personality spats.  None more important than the economy.  This is the bread and butter credibility of elected government leaders, no matter what country they’re representing.

The most important question we need to ask of election candidates, right now: how will they improve the lives, livelihoods, and living environments of our people?

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: ITU Pictures.

Authors

Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka chairs the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, New Zealand and publishes the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net.

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