Four more years

Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: e-Tangata.

Just when you’re feeling a tad sorry about Akilisi Pohiva’s government getting the boot when the Tongan King called up section 38 in the constitution to dissolve parliament, his Democratic Party comes out on top with fourteen of the people’s seventeen seats at a snap election.  This amounted to 40% of the country’s ticks on papers.  With the pattern of snap elections, however, voter participation dropped around 20 thousand so that just under 40 thousand adults, 21 years and over, actually placed their vote in the ballot box.

For a small island developing state with a population of 100 thousand plus, the swing up at the polls from 28 percent at the 2014 election, to 40 percent in 2017, sent a strong message: dissolving parliament by an autocratic royal decree was simply undemocratic.  At 76 years of age and with 30 years in parliament representing his constituency of Tongatapu 1, it could’ve been the mellowing out stage to Pohiva’s turbulent career in politics.

And then something unsettling happened heading into the Prime Minister’s ballot on Monday December the 18th.  What it showed was that Pohiva hadn’t changed his colours at all and was cashing in on his trademark tactic of conflict politics.  He played a media strategy of cancelling out the opposition.

Kaniva Tonga reported his half-baked political theory as if he was witnessing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – so help him God.  And in one almighty press statement, he sent the whole country reeling backwards in a head-spin.

If his political scheming to win the premier’s election achieved any purpose, it might’ve been this: Pohiva highlighted the reason why parliament went belly up on dissolution day of August 25th.  He had a grand talent for dominating the media with his stories.  In fact, he was so skilled at spinning whoppers, his supporters couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction.

And that’s the thing one has to be critical of: the voice that controls media overshadows Tongan politics.  Therefore, the question that ought to be put to the media is straightforward: why has a single narrative created around this one voice prevailed when there’s counter narratives challenging Pohiva’s dominance in political life?

It’s here we find ourselves back at square one when we began our column about Pohiva’s first government Who Runs the Zoo in 2014.  This latest drama will come as no surprise to the 60% who did not vote for his Democratic Party.

Why didn’t they vote for the party?  They didn’t want Pohiva resurrected from dissolution as the country’s Prime Minister for a second round.  The risk was his re-election may result in another performance of sacking parliament.

Question: what odd thing did Dear Leader of the political zoo actually do?  Answer: he attempted to pull a fast one to eliminate the competition – Siaosi Sovaleni – from standing against him at the Prime Minister’s election.

Kalino Latu ran the story on Monday 11 December, three days before nominations for the premier’s ballot closed on Thursday December 14th.


Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva said nobles and non-Democratic Party Members of Parliament should support his Party and refrain from nominating any more Prime Minister designates.

Kalino Latu.


Seriously, was Tonga’s Dear Leader dementing in a similar way that clinicians have expressed medical concern for Donald Trump’s failing state of mental health?  We mean to say, why would opposition MPs of independents and nobles want to join up in Akilisi Pohiva’s communist party as if he’s Fidel Castro heading the Cuban revolution?

For starters, 1950s Cuban communism defeats the purpose of having an opposition in a 21st century Tongan parliament that was reformed in 2010 for greater social inclusion of diverse voices and views.  It’s so undemocratic to argue the 12 MPs in opposition to his 14 party seats should forfeit the right to stand their own candidate for the Prime Minister’s election in parliament, and instead vote for him.  Why did he even go there?

‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Koro Vaka’uta.

Pohiva’s desire for a one-party state where independent and noble MPs were forced to support his party, corrupted the parliamentary process.  He may have had 14 seats to form a government.  But he faced a staunch opposition of 12, who as a voting bloc were large enough to form an alternate government and had the right not to support him by nominating their preferred Prime Minister.

Which brings us to ask: was Pohiva avoiding competing in a fair and free election against Siaosi Sovaleni, the independent people’s representative for the electorate of Tongatapu 3?  Considering this was the third time he’d contested the premier’s ballot since the 2010 political reform as the leader of the Democratic Party, what’s so hard about that?

Two things, really.  First, he’d unfairly dismissed Sovaleni as his Deputy Prime Minister immediately after the King dissolved parliament.  His reasoning was based on unsubstantiated rumour; none of it proven fact.  The Democratic Party clique surmised that Sovaleni was somehow involved in illegal passport sales.  It wasn’t true.  They had no evidence.  And Sovaleni issued a media statement refuting the false allegations during his re-election campaign.  Plainly, Pohiva looked like elderly prey to the smear-campaign hawks who’d flocked to his inner circle.

Second, Sovaleni was thirty years his junior.  An upbeat, energetic, middle aged professional who was a moderate politician with a public administration and policy background, he fitted the leadership prototype of a Tongan Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, or Jacinda Ardern.  Plus, he had popular appeal at home and overseas; none so much as with the younger generation of 21 to 40 year old Tongan voters, who constituted the nation’s majority.

If the people were allowed to vote at the Prime Minister’s ballot on Monday the 18th, Sovaleni looked the younger, charismatic leader of forward-thinking vision, skills, and drive to competently govern the country.

Tongan politics in the post-reform era came down to leadership.  Although Pohiva had turned it into personality politics between him and the former Prime Ministers, Lord Tu’ivakano and Feleti Sevele, this time heading into the ballot he was up against a new generation leader who made it clear, his style of public communication had nothing to do with old school scatter-fire politics.

Sovaleni centred his policies on the state bureaucracy’s work and strengthening institutional partnerships between public and private sectors to achieve sustainable development goals for the people’s benefit.  This was the thorn in Pohiva’s side: could he keep up with a younger male leader?  If Sovaleni fronted him as the leading opposition MP, could he sustain the work pace at 76 and a generation behind him in these fast-changing times?

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Going back to the day after Tonga’s general election on November 17th, Koro Vaka’uta for Radio New Zealand spoke to Pohiva’s right-hand man, Pohiva Tu’ionetoa, people’s representative for the electorate of Tongatapu 10.  What could the public expect from a seemingly Democratic Party government for its second consecutive season?  His crudely put answer was, more of the same.


Although the House has been dissolved, they do make a strong statement, that the people want the democracy to progress.  The people state that the dissolution of Parliament was not the proper way to progress in democracy in this country.  I think what we have been focussing on so far, and then the dissolution seemed to have stopped what we have been doing and I think at this stage we should be progressing on the same way.

Pohiva Tu’inonetoa.

Pohiva Tu’ionetoa. Photograph: Koro Vaka’uta.



The party’s idea of “progressing on the same way” meant what, exactly?  Here was the warning sign Tongans have to look out for when Akilisi Pohiva rolls out his plan.  Malakai Koloamatangi explained its logic in an interview with Mike Morrah for Newshub, the following day after Tonga’s general election on November 17th.


I think what Pohiva has tried to do over the years is give more power to the people.  I don’t think there’s anything sinister in that.  I see it as a continued evolution of power.  It’s part of the King becoming more ceremonial.

Malakai Koloamatangi.


Reducing the King’s executive power in the constitution to purely ceremonial power looked like this.  The monarch would only retain social status without the personal prerogative to dissolve parliament, sanction laws, and hire and fire commissioners, the judiciary and the attorney general.

Pohiva’s ten year plan he divulged to the media also meant restructuring the nobles 9 special seats in parliament.  He was thinking of making them stand on the general roll with candidates for the people’s election.

Working to a ten year completion timeframe required the Democratic Party to win the Prime Ministership at the next 2021 election to form a government.  Suddenly, Sovaleni’s place in the political spectrum became clear in realising why he was a significant younger generation leader.

He gave Tonga a moderate option to Pohiva’s leftist socialism; another pathway to development that didn’t entail stripping the Head of State’s power, which was intricately tied to having his noblemen represented as a voting bloc in parliament.

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Koro Vaka’uta.

The big objector was Lord Tu’ivakano, head of the nobles’ bloc of 9 special seats.  Despite being unpopular with the public for orchestrating parliament’s dissolution as the Speaker, he discoed back in the House with the highest number of votes for the Tongatapu nobles.  Tongatapu has most of Tonga’s titles and estates.  What does that tell us?

No, the noble class did not unanimously agree the dissolution was warranted or necessary.  It was the process of dismantling the parliament in which their views varied from conservative to moderate.  Yes, the noble class did agree that Tu’ivakano was protecting the King’s vested interests in maintaining his executive power in the constitution.

Make no mistake: whatever your opinion of Tu’ivakano’s politics, he is the head nobleman for the King’s representatives in parliament.  He has the backing of his fellow nobles.  And this is what their 9 seats represent in a nutshell: the King’s constitutional authority, and theirs along with it, as estate holders and titled men by law.

If there’s difficulty in understanding the workings of traditional authority, patriarchy, and hierarchy in Tongan politics and society, then study the constitution.  It’s all there in black and white with no shades of grey.  The other bone of contention carved in stone is the decades old battle of two extremes on the political spectrum: Pohiva for leftist people’s representatives, and Tu’ivakano for conservative nobles.

Their conflicting positions had hardened after the 2017 election along with the sides of the House they symbolised.  What’s their battle over?  Party politics.

Tu’ivakano doesn’t believe Tonga’s parliamentary system, even after the 2010 reform, was designed for political parties.  Rather, it’s for individuals to be elected as constituency representatives where they engage in consensus style debate and decision making in the legislature.

Of course this is a public relations advertisement for nobles and people’s representatives to form a coalition government.  But his views haven’t changed in twenty years, since he was interviewed in 1997 on the subject of political parties by Pesi Fonua at Matangi Tonga.


The house is not run along political party concepts, as some members are trying to make it to be.  They have to be very careful because if it is misinterpreted we could go back to before 1875, when there was a lot of bloodshed.

Lord Tu’ivakano.


Tu’ivakano was really pointing to Pohiva as the ringleader who was “trying to make” the parliament into a political party model.  The twist to this story is that Pohiva’s not making any real effort to legislate for political parties to be formally recognised in the Tongan electoral system.

Why ever not, seeing he’s the leader of the Democratic Party with 14 seats in the Legislative Assembly?  In short, you will never know.

Lord Tu’ivakano. Photograph: Matangi Tonga.

But what we can be assured of is that Pohiva’s gearing up to launch a political missile attack on Tu’ivakano and Siaosi Sovaleni once parliament reconvenes in 2018.  The tell-tale sign is in his attempt to curtail Sovaleni from standing against him at the 2017 Prime Minister’s election, as well as threatening to stop Tu’ivakano being appointed as parliament’s speaker for the 2017 to 2021 term.

Pohiva warned he’d beat down on the opposition with his gang of 14 people in the House if they dared to nominate Tu’ivakano for speaker.  His gang has two more than the opposition.  Whoopee.  Because in the world of politics, that’s a narrow magin.  Kalino Latu wrote up Pohiva’s anti-Tu’ivakano rant for Kaniva Tonga on December 16th.


[Akilisi Pohiva] said he no longer trusted Lord Tu’ivakano after he had badly advised the king.  “I and the PTOA [Tongan Democratic Party] have the numbers to decide who is our next speaker,” Pohiva said.

Kalino Latu.


Caught up in election fever and Christmas carols of a landslide victory to the mighty reds, the Tongan Democrats, it was as if Pohiva had lost sight of what politics was really all about.  That is, forming a stable, functional government under a proficient Prime Minister’s leadership.  Malakai Koloamatangi hit this point home.


The question of whether he [Akilisi Pohiva] puts together a credible [government] and performs as Prime Minister is another question.  There is opportunity for Pohiva to smooth things over.

Malakai Koloamatangi.


He wasn’t taking that opportunity to “smooth things over” seriously.  It was sizing up to be four more years of the same old Pohiva politics.  He’d continue battling against Tu’ivakano and the noble MPs to diminish their power by expanding the Democratic Party empire.

Perhaps the one road block stopping Pohiva from a complete takeover of electorates on the main island, where 75 percent of the population lived, was Siaosi Sovaleni.  Smack in the middle of Nuku’alofa Town, the country’s CBD, he held his ground as the independent representative for Tongatapu 3.

Twenty years ago in 1997, Joseph S. Nye co-edited an important book called: Why People Don’t Trust Government.


Social scientists do not fully understand the relationship between satisfaction with day-to-day government and support for democracy as a regime, but one thing is clear: the future of democratic governance matters very much.  In addition to the costs of ineffective government performance, the decline of trust may have a cost in terms of democratic values.

Joseph S. Nye.


Ring in the New Year’s lesson for Tonga: “the future of democratic governance matters very much.”  Tongans paid a high price for the “ineffective government performance” of Pohiva’s last administration where parliament’s dissolution was the penalty.

This time around, “democratic values” will dissolve rapidly if public trust deteriorates over the Democratic Party leadership failing to prioritise the day-to-day running of government as its foreground business.  If pushing for an increase in his power as Prime Minister is the only motive Akilisi Pohiva executes as a head of government, then he won’t be sitting in office for a full term.

The country’s economy and citizen wellbeing cannot sustain his belligerent politicking for much longer.  Because the truth is, this is not affording power to the people at all.  It’s about shifting power from the monarch to a premier elected by parliament.  And if 60% of voters and 12 MPs are against, then we must by all democratic means force a public conversation first before any far-fetched plans start to escalate out of control.

Our thoughts?  Talk to your MPs.  Hold them to account for representing their constituency views.  That’s a bottom-up model of participatory democracy works in practice.

Sovaleni supporters for Tongatapu 3 gathered to watch a Mate Ma’a Tonga game. Photograph: Siaosi Sovaleni.


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,

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