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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 7, 2002 – Agence France-Presse)---Tonga's veteran pro-democracy leader ‘Akilisi Pohiva Thursday night claimed victory in general elections, which he said sent a strong message to the kingdom’s near absolute ruler that the people want change.

It was not clear yet how well overall the pro-democracy movement was doing as results were only slowly coming in from the scattered islands that make up the Polynesian kingdom of 104,000 people.

Tongatapu, the main island, showed a strong trend toward the pro democracy movement, despite a bitter controversy and police raids over a letter said to outline the personal fortune of King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV.

Pohiva said he had faced a powerful campaign to get him out.

"It is clear what the result means. The result is a clear message to His Majesty and to the Tongan Government that people want and demand change," he told AFP from his home in Nuku‘alofa.

The elections do not change who rules as the king has held power since becoming ruler in 1965 and the kingdom’s constitution allows the elite to stack the 30-seat legislature.

The king appoints a 12-man cabinet for life terms, led by his youngest son, Prime Minister Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka ‘Ata, 43.

The kingdom's 33 nobles decided Wednesday on their nine representatives in the house.

Commoners voted Thursday from among 52 candidates for the nine commoner seats.

Unofficial results indicate the pro democracy movement, which is not a formal political party, could Thursday night claim five again, although the likely figure may be seven.

Among those returned is Teisina Fuko, a Ha‘apai island MP who revealed that the king's court jester, American Buddhist Jesse Bogdonoff, had lost about US$ 26 million of the king’s money.

Pohiva, 61, has crusaded for democracy since entering politics in 1987.

With around half the polling stations counted on Tongatapu, Pohiva had an unassailable lead among the 18 candidates seeking the three seats, while pro-democracy supporter Fred Seveli was in a strong second position. The third looked as if it could go to movement official Isileli Pulu, who last week was arrested by police over a letter about the king’s fortune, although a Kotoa (royalist) Movement candidate could still take the third seat.

In January the pro-democracy movement’s newspaper Kele‘a, edited by Pohiva, published what it said was a 1991 letter from the late palace secretary ‘Ofa Tu‘i‘onetoa allegedly detailing US$ 350 million held by the king in off-shore bank accounts. The publication caused a sensation, although it took the government two weeks to react to it.

Police claim the letter was a forgery and arrested Pulu and Pohiva's son over it, while Pohiva’s journalist daughter has also been charged with faxing the letter to a New Zealand based publication.

For the first time the pro-democracy movement was actively opposed by Kotoa, a new movement backed by the king’s daughter Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita and Police Minister Clive Edwards.

Pohiva said Kotoa, during the past two weeks, had tried to ensure that he and his supporters were removed from the legislature.

"They were out to destroy me and my colleagues," he said.

But commoners retained their confidence in him.

"They cannot afford to have me out. They want a leader in this country. There is a leadership crisis in the country."

The kingdom lacks direction and is in trouble economically, he said.

"The people want a leader who is concerned with their problems."

Full results of the election are not expected until Friday.

Behind closed doors voting of nobles Wednesday caused surprise, particularly with the dumping of Speaker Noble Veikune. It is now expected that the king’s nephew, Prince Tu‘ipelehake, will be the new speaker.

Insiders say that when the nobles of the main island of Tongatapu voted, nobles Lasike and Fohe had equal votes -- and so the result was decided by a toss of the coin.

For Vava‘u Island, the first round saw all the nobles with one vote each, suggesting they voted for themselves.

The two representatives were then determined with the drawing of lots, using matchsticks.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:  Website: 

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