TONGA POLITICAL REFORM PRODUCES FAMILIAR GOVERNMENT

Editorial

Matangi Tonga

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Jan. 10, 2011) – In Tonga, the Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano has formed his cabinet last Tuesday, January 4, the new cabinet ministers took charge of their Ministries in preparation for their swearing-in on Thursday, 13 January.

As the new cabinet and the new 28 member parliament are formalized this week the public should have a clear understanding of the political positions of our 12 Cabinet Ministers and the other 16 members of parliament.

The campaigns by political parties that were formed by candidates for the November 2010 Parliamentary Election, while making the election more lively, has in the first round led to polarization of the new parliament. In the second round in the voting for the Prime Minister the leading party was out-maneuvered and then, finally, when the cabinet was formed the party began to disintegrate.

Although there was nothing to stop a party from running for election, it was doing so in an environment where the Political Reform Program that Tonga was embarking on had emphasized the election of individuals into parliament and the selection of a cabinet from among the successful members, who would then make decisions by consensus and not along the lines of party manifestos or ideologies.

The party that won most of the People's Representatives seats with 11 out of 17 constituencies was the Paati Temokalati 'a e 'Otuanga'ofa (PTO). Their claim to victory was short-lived because by running as a party with an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) they polarized the politics of the new parliament, which led to another bloc being formed by the independent People's Representatives (PRs), who aligned with the Nobles' Representatives and snatched victory in the second round of the election to choose their own Prime Minister from among the 26 members.

The Independent PRs/Noble's Representatives (NRs) now hold an overwhelming majority in parliament, particularly with the two additional votes that the Prime Minister has brought in from outside as members of his Cabinet.

The polarization of the Tongan parliament became even more profound following the formation of the new cabinet, when the leader of the PTO 'Akilisi Pohiva and his right-hand man, 'Isileli Pulu decided to accept cabinet portfolios themselves. They have joined 10 cabinet members of the Independent bloc in a cabinet chosen by the Prime Minister on his own terms.

This shift of alliance by the two from the PTO to the government of the Independents was dramatic, bearing in mind that the Paati Temokalati 'a e 'Otuanga'ofa candidates had signed an MOU that was hailed as a binding document that tied all PTO candidates together for the sake of their own survival. A few PRs who refused to sign it and thereby remained independents, were publicly denounced in the party newspaper.

It is widely believed that 'Akilisi Pohiva and 'Isileli Pulu have pledged, like the two Cabinet Members who were brought in from the outside by the Prime Minister, that they will never vote on a Vote of No Confidence motion against the Prime Minister.

So with the Independent bloc now enjoying an overwhelming majority of 18 members against only 10 members of the PTO left in opposition in parliament, it is probably right to say that the leadership of the party Paati Temokalati 'a e 'Otuanga'ofa has been split. The PTO will need to find new leaders in order to form a credible opposition in parliament if that is what they intended to do.

The theory was that the introduction of party politics into the Tongan Parliament would put in place a strong opposition and it would therefore make the system more democratic.

Unfortunately, in this initial experimental stage of the Tongan Political Reform process it does not work, simply because the PTO has neither ideology nor any manifesto, all it had was a Memorandum of Understanding.

It now appears that the concept of a government making decision by consensus remains to be the one that can unite the House.

Interestingly, after talking about trying to introduce a more democratic system of government, Tonga has in fact ended up with a system very similar to the one we had before.

Our previous government was supposed to be run by consensus; a minority government with the nine Nobles' Representatives and the nine People's Representatives voting independently on issues. Decisions passed by the House were made by consensus on what they thought was best for the country.

Unfortunately, the old consensus concept did not function well because the Noble's Representatives and the People's representatives could not work together and the NRs were perceived to be always supporting Cabinet. In the old system Cabinet Ministers were appointed by the King.

The PRs were a minority opposition and the intention of the Political Reform, by increasing the numbers of People's Representatives from nine to 17, was to give the PRs the advantage of having a majority presence in the House.

From the outset it was pointed out that it could not work this way because the Electoral System was for the election of representatives from 17 constituencies, and not to elect a party into power and, of course, because Tonga does not have legislation to regulate political parties.

The system they have now, democratic or undemocratic, is the one they all agreed to.

Tonga's Political Reform has come full circle. This time around, perhaps, Tongan is being given another chance to try and make consensus politics work.

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