Pohiva wins Tonga’s war of perception

“Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization,” wrote journalist Jonathan Rauch.  He was talking about how American politics went insane under President Trump but might as well have been talking about Tonga.  Let’s face it: Tongan politics has gone crazy.  Political stability has deteriorated from two zoo administrations of Dear Leader, ‘Akilisi Pohiva.  His cabinets can’t organise a cup-of-tea let alone an investigation into who cut the internet cable. The opposition can’t find a leader, which makes opposing Pohiva relatively hopeless. Journalists can’t organise a decent newspaper that reports facts not fiction. In the meantime, ordinary Tongans left to their own devises have taken to social media, spending hours on Facebook spreading stories driven by emotion not the truth. Chaos syndrome has contaminated the Kingdom. Rest in peace, the short and futile life of democracy.

‘Akilisi Pohiva: Facebook meme by pro-Pohiva supporters.

Where do we get the news on what’s happening in politics while the Tongan political system is having a mental breakdown? We don’t get any reliable news; that’s our point. But there is a method to the madness of infecting the population with chaos syndrome. ‘Akilisi Pohiva knows this as the Jedi master of chaos politics, which has been his brand of Democratic Party leadership for 30 years. The vantage point of wreaking havoc on the country by causing chaos is that Pohiva wins Tonga’s war of perception for the simple reason that state institutions, the judiciary, and the media are weakened and without these pillars of a functional democracy and strong alternative leadership, the opposition can’t organise a counter that’s credible.  The war of perception is a competition for public credibility by controlling the narrative on political truths, and as dodgy as Pohiva’s testimonies are, he’s still persuasive over his vote bank in Tonga which is his stronghold.

There’s two things about a political leader’s vote bank in modern battles to win the war of perception.  First, the vote bank is the stable supply of votes at elections and support during a leader’s term in government.  Second, the vote bank repeats the leader’s political dogma in news outlets, social media, and community gatherings like kava clubs in Tonga so it spreads as the dominant narrative the general public understand to be the government’s message.

There’s two things about ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s vote bank.  It’s largely Mormon, meaning a sizeable portion of votes for his 14 party MPs in a House of 26 legislators were from Tongan voters who are Latter Day Saints.  Understandably his key ministers steering the government’s business direction are Mormon, Deputy Prime Minister Semisi Sika and Minister of Labour, Tui ‘Uata.  As a result, Dear Leader’s chaos has moved away from public rallies that rile up the underclass to burn and loot Nuku’alofa in the 2006 riot to skimming the state coffers by doling out business contracts to allies.

There’s two things about the Nobles losing Tonga’s war of perception without fail.  Foremost, they don’t have a vote bank.  This is significant because nowadays in Tonga, registered voters on the general roll are the lifeblood of how a democracy is meant to function.  Voters elect the majority of MPs, which enables the people’s representatives to gather the majority in parliament to form a government.  Furthermore, the public perception of the Nobles is that they all have dirty laundry, which stinks to high heaven.  Thus, their political reputations are stained with the exception of Lord Tu’i’afitu, and that’s because he’s a church cleric and not because he’s a Noble.

‘Akilisi Pohiva: Facebook meme by anti-Pohiva petitioners.

There’s two things about Tongan voters that the Tongan diaspora embroiled in pro-Pohiva versus anti-Pohiva fights on the internet don’t get.  First, common people may not like the government but they like the opposition even less.  When anti-Pohiva petitioners living in the lap of overseas privilege get loud and obnoxious on Facebook about how dearly they want to get rid of Dear Leader and throw him to the sharks who apparently ate the undersea cable, it has a negative effect on public perception of the opposition.  The opposition is linked to any conniving to purge the country of Pohiva’s leadership.  Second, the anti-Pohiva petitioners are pro-monarchy, and that’s not the issue at stake because the majority of voters in Tonga are pro-monarchy.  It’s never been about the King but rather, what’s the alternative to Dear Leader and the zoo?  Minus the Nobles that is, because as far as common people are concerned they’ve had their day to run the government and no one wants to go back to the dark ages.

There’s two issues that make sense of how state institutions and the judiciary, once weakened, trigger an epidemic of chaos syndrome. With that said, the government crackdown on journalists has ensured independent media doesn’t report on hard issues linked to ICT, information and communications technology. ICT is vital to a country’s economy and development despite how poor the state is because communications infrastructure regulates the exchange of ideas, information, and money.

The first issue is TongaSat’s appeal against Chief Justice Paulsen’s Supreme Court judgement of August 17th and September 5th, 2018. Paulsen ruled in favour of the Public Service Association Incorporation and ‘Akilisi Pohiva who alleged “the tranche payments [from government to TongaSat] were public money and that their expenditure to or for the benefit of TongaSat was unlawful being in breach of the Public Management Act.” According to Matangi Tonga, the court of appeal will hear the TongaSat case between April 8th to the 18th, 2019, which includes new witnesses of whom some are former finance ministers endorsing the appeal.

But media is now an extension of Pohiva’s power and its politicisation has meant that fair and balanced news no longer exists. Kaniva Tonga published that Chief Justice Paulsen had laid down conditions that a $15,000 pa’anga “security deposit” must be paid by TongaSat to the courts before an appeal may take place because there’s a “risk that if costs were awarded against TongaSat they would not be made.” What law was Paulsen making his risk assessment on? It looks as if the judge has formed a verdict before the case has gone to court. The bottom line is he shouldn’t be working a case that seeks to overturn his own ruling. Conflict of interest.

The second issue is the fibre optic cable being physically cut causing Tonga’s internet blackout for 12-days, and rumours alleging it was an inside job of government sabotage.  This will not be resolved by a police investigation because perception of the police force has regressed to one of public distrust while ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s son-in-law Mateni Tapueluelu holds the police minister’s portfolio, and the police commissioner is Stephen Caldwell. Moreover, an independent investigation won’t take place because the government doesn’t want one; which leads us to ask why, especially when an impartial probe might be the objective way to clear the government’s name from any suspected wrongdoing.

There’s a host of reasons why Pohiva’s regime aren’t eager to open up the “human factor behind the damage,” as Mateni Tapueluelu described the scenario to Radio New Zealand. But the critical factor motivating suspicion of sabotage is this: with TongaSat out of the picture as the country’s satellite provider, therein lies a business opportunity to bring in an ally. Question: why would Tonga want to backslide to satellite backup when fibre optic cable is faster, efficient, and cheaper? Answer: satellite backup would limit internet access to social media for a start, but it also provides a way to sweep people’s data. Satellite spying to be precise. We shouldn’t be shocked because China spies on its citizens and Tonga has fast become swept under China’s sphere of influence.

If there’s one thing to be concerned about in Tonga, it’s that citizens have adapted to chaos syndrome.  Like any social contagion, it invades society at all levels and people learn to live within its limits and bounds. What the diaspora ought to be worried about is that they haven’t found an antidote because they’re not influential or effective at rallying citizens to form new parties, find new politicians (rather than recycle old ones with sullied reputations) who can credibly counter Dear Leader and the zoo.


Dr Teena Brown Pulu is a senior lecturer 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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