Zoo with no keeper

Opening of Tonga’s parliament, 2018. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

A political zoo with no keeper can cause serious health problems for an entire country.  Certainly it had disrupted Tonga’s polity and economy.  The question was, were we staring down the barrel of growing dysfunction in government that’d been transferred over from Akilisi Pohiva’s last administration?  Yes, we’re in for another four years of it, given the government doesn’t flop again.

Fact: the 76 year old Prime Minister of Tonga was hospitalised on Friday 5 January 2018.  Rumour: stories emerged that he was incapacitated and on life support.  Problem: ten days on, the state bureaucracy and the public appeared to be perplexed.  Who runs the zoo?  Only God knows.

Currently in Tonga, there’s no acting Prime Minister, which makes Pohiva’s regime look as if it’s missing a vital body part – the head.  As for the unofficial tail, Pohiva’s handpicked cabinet yet to be sworn in, Matangi Tonga reported that parliament’s clerk “announced the House will reconvene on Thursday 18 January for its first sitting [where] the Prime Minister shall introduce any new members of new ministers to the Speaker.”

That’s fine except there was no corroboration of official stories from the Prime Minister’s Office confirming, at the very least, Pohiva would be released from hospital with a clean bill of health to resume prime ministerial duties.

Tonga’s Democratic Party. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.



Tonga’s latest political chaos was staged on the week of January the 8th when government offices reopened.  That was the week media reported the Prime Minister, Akilisi Pohiva, had been in Vaiola hospital’s intensive care unit since the 5th.  Oddly, government didn’t issue a statement on Pohiva’s absence explaining why he hadn’t turned up for work.  Right from the start, nobody could verify the facts of an unsolved mystery.

Local and international news outlets described Pohiva’s medical condition in vague language.  The narrative on repeat was that the Prime Minister of Tonga had come down with a “mysterious illness,” an “undisclosed illness,” and that he could have been airlifted for emergency treatment abroad but wasn’t.

Airlifted for what, surgery?  Did he go under the knife in Tonga?  Was he in a critical condition?  On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 means close to kicking the bucket, what’s the real story?

Akilisi Pohiva’s appointed ministers. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.


No one close to him from family, doctors, to the Deputy Prime Minister Semisi Sika, made a concise statement naming Pohiva’s illness.  A systematic glitch surfaced.  The government had a responsibility to truthfully inform the public of any likelihood the Prime Minister’s intensive care treatment may, during the four year term, result in medical retirement or the most serious outcome of death.

No country in the world wants to cradle a sickly, elderly head of government with significant health problems.  The hush-hush malady prevented Prime Minister Pohiva from attending the opening of parliament on Thursday January 11th, 2018.  But secrecy was no cure for poor public relations.  It had the opposite effect of irritating a social infection called deep-seated distrust in government.

Here’s the thing: if a government leader doesn’t come clean to the public, straight off the bat, they don’t have a clean bill of health, instantly it’s called out as a foul in the game of politics.

Pohiva’s foul opened up questions of succession: if he wasn’t going to last four years on the job, did he have a succession plan for who’ll be replacing him as leader for Tonga’s Democratic Party?  The answer was illusive but must’ve been seen by Pohiva’s family as all the more reason to ensure his thirty years in politics amounted to the party’s sustainability as a prevailing force in government.

But who could replace the grand old battler of the Tongan Democrats?  And how had Pohiva envisaged leadership succession in light that a replacement was doubtful to be as charismatically masterful at manufacturing social glue to fasten a fragmented assortment of odds and ends politicians?

Mateni Tapueluelu (centre), Pohiva’s son-in-law. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

In the political context of small island states, there was a tradition of inherited leadership, similar to Tonga’s nobility ceding titles and estates from father to eldest son.  Therefore, the rumour that the Prime Minister’s eldest son, Siaosi Pohiva, might take over the party headship if he won his father’s seat for Tongatapu 1 at the 2021 election was understandable.

There was Pohiva’s son-in-law, Mateni Tapueluelu, the people’s representative for Tongatapu 4.  Where was he in the family picture?  He had parliamentary and ministerial experience over and above his brother-in-law.  The son versus the son-in-law scenario begged an inquiry: were two separate camps at work inside the family?

A glaring contradiction contaminated the Democratic Party: they had the most undemocratic method of deciding a party leader.  No election from inside the party caucus of MPs took place, ever.

Their wilful disregard for electing the party leadership was so antagonistic to leftist principles in countries all over the world, the Prime Minister’s people seemed to practice the authoritarian values of right-wing Trump America.

The Tongan Prime Minister’s indefinite health stained the political landscape.  Surely it could’ve been mitigated to console anxious Tongans about the leadership crisis in government if the Democratic Party caucus had an election system allowing a senior MP to challenge for the headship, especially in dire circumstances when the existing leader had taken seriously ill.

The party appeared to be fixed on staying in power, come hell or high water.  They worried about what was under their nose, rather than looking beyond a small insular Democrat fishbowl.  If Pohiva did vacate public office, either now or down the line, a by-election would be called for his seat of Tongatapu 1, plus a new Prime Minister’s ballot staged in parliament.

Semisi Sika and Tui Uata. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Deputy Prime Minister Sika did not, by Tongan law, automatically move up to government boss if his boss departed dead or alive.  In all honesty, Sika resembled a political appointment along with Tui Uata to appease the Latter Day Saints support for the party.

Many considered Pohiva Tu’ionetoa, the people’s representative for Tongatapu 10, a sharper choice of politician for Deputy Prime Minister.  Not only did he have senior public administration experience but he returned to parliament with the highest percentage of constituency votes.

Another apprehension was the prospect a second election for Prime Minister may go ahead before the by-election for Pohiva’s constituency.

That would mean the Democratic Party dropped to 13 MPs at the vote.  They could win back the government, even at one seat down with 13 votes to 12 for the opposition.  But the risk was the party would look shaky with a narrow victory of one brittle vote.

Tevita Lavemaau. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Compounding the angst was diminishing public confidence the party could cut the mustard without forming a coalition with the independent people’s representatives, Siaosi Sovaleni for Tongatapu 3 and Tevita Lavemaau for Eua 11.  These were Pohiva’s former ministers who had specialist knowledge in major portfolios the government didn’t possess – foreign affairs, climate, and communications, as well as finance and national planning.

If the scenario transpired of a second Prime Minister’s election who would the Democratic Party stand?  Importantly, how would their leadership reputation stack up against the popular independent MP Siaosi Sovaleni, who’d already stood against Akilisi Pohiva at the December 2017 ballot?

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

The one lesson Pohiva’s yet to be sworn in cabinet learned in ten days of the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation, was that government stability is threatened with a sick head.

Under the 2010 reformed political system, the Prime Minister signified the government.  If the head fell by retiring from office or dying on the job, the government folded, period.  And the process for a fresh election of a new Prime Minister kicked in.  They got that, no doubt.

Where they didn’t show good leadership was comprehending the gravity – the political and moral damage to relationships between parliament, the public, and Tonga’s international standing as a nation of secure and safe government – by simply not coming clean on the possibility of leadership change due to the Prime Minister’s poor health.

Speak the truth, Akilisi Pohiva’s government.  In the 21st century alone, our South Seas Kingdom has experienced a civil riot that burnt down 80 percent of Nuku’alofa’s central business district, the deaths of two monarchs, and three administrations after the 2010 political reform.

The nation is the people.  And the people are resilient enough to work through another Prime Minister’s ballot.  What is reprehensible is to distort or delay that process if it’s in our country’s best interests.  Let the public conscience be your judge.

People’s representatives to the Tongan parliament. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.


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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