Why the Pro-democracy movement failed Tonga

Opinion: Ko e ha na'e ikai ke malava ai e liliu faka-temokalati 'i Tonga?


By Kalafi Moala

Social movements anywhere, and for any cause, are something social activists aspire to establish, and in history, there have been more than a few that have proven their value and resilience, withstanding the test of time.

In history three leaders have led movements that have remained to this day, in one form or another. I am talking about the movements that were led by iconic personalities like Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States; Mahatma Gandhi of India; and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

These three globally recognized movements had their political expressions in their own countries, which brought huge changes. But these were primarily moral and spiritual movements focusing on changing peoples’ lives.

They were advocating change, not just in the governing systems, but in people – how they relate and treated each other; how they establish the principles of justice, freedom, and peaceful co-existence in their relationships.

Martin Luther King Jr was a Christian cleric. Mahatma Gandhi was a dedicated Hindu, who said that he was a follower of the “ways of Jesus.” And, Nelson Mandela who ran the most political of the movements ended his years as a reformer by acknowledging and advocating for moral and spiritual change, especially among the black majority of South Africa.

These three leaders were driven by a moral and spiritual purpose. The reform they advocated were moral and spiritual. It’s the kind of stuff that knocks corruption on the head, lifts people out of poverty, and stops the rise of crime.

There’s more to be learned from these leaders and the movements they led. But, as we examine the Pro-democracy movements of the South Pacific, one stands out so distinctly as in the Kingdom of Tonga, not for its success, but sadly for its failure.

The impact of that failure is being felt in almost every sector of Tongan society today. There was so much hope in the populace for changes that would bring freedom, peace, and prosperity. What was promised by the leaders of the movement brought broken hope and division instead.

The leader of the movement, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, who became the Prime Minister of Tonga in 2014, passed away in 2019, and the vision he had for reform; the broken promises he made, were buried with him. Death has a way of taking things not only out of existence, but also squeezing the spirit out of anything that might have life.

Sadly, Mr. Pohiva promised Heaven, but delivered Hell. He was named by the media in Tonga as “the worse Prime Minister Tonga ever had.” Whether he was or not is irrelevant. The fact he could not fulfill the aspirations of Tongans to move Tonga to a greater level of social and economic development was enough to halt the progress of a movement that was popularly supported.

By the time he died, the small island kingdom that have been fed by his call for reform over a period of 30+ years was more corrupt than ever, poorer than ever, crime had risen to a record high, and Tonga was socially fragmented in every which way.

It took 30+ years to campaign for political power, but when the people of Tonga eventually gave the reformers power, they did not know how to handle it. In fact, they abused it big time.

‘Akilisi Pohiva, who was Tonga’s a most formidable opposition leader, inspiring hope among so many people, ended up being a toothless tiger once he became the leader of Government.

It was Abraham Lincoln who said that the true test to a man’s character is to give him power. And that is what Tonga gave to their fearless, opposition leader. And he failed miserably – simply because he could not exercise good governance; and did not know how to use his power humbly and effectively to build Tonga.

Like many political leaders obsessed with pursuing power, he was a narcissist who was preoccupied with himself. During his administration he took revenge on his political enemies and reward unfairly those who unconditionally supported him.

But the question remains as to why he and the movement he led failed?

Despite the rhetoric that was seductive with democratic and reform narrative, the lack of positive policy and practical administration of vision, reeked sudden destruction to the hope of many.

The call for “liliu” which is Tongan for change or reform, just could not be translated into action. Part of the problem was the leaders of the movement became obsessed with the removing of the King’s power, and to be “replaced by them.”

Unlike the successful movements referred to above, the Tonga Pro-democracy was not a moral and spiritual movement. It was purely a political movement that used the influence of the various spheres of society to support its questionable aim. The movement was driven by an unquenchable appetite for absolute power.

What Tonga needed was not just a system change but a reform focused on people, changing thinking and attitudes, establishing moral and spiritual foundations that would move society forward.

In 2010, the Constitution, which has been in place for over 140 years, was amended to make Tonga more democratic. This was a great move and pleased all the stakeholders of Tonga society – the people, the nobles, and the royal family.

It was under this new Constitutional amendment that Mr. Pohiva and his political associates came into power in 2014. It took them less than 5 years to bring to utter ruins the achievements made in the previous 30 years. Tongan society became divided as never before.

Today, Tongans are learning that it was not the system that needed greater reform but man. The Tongan reform did not focus on people. When you change a system without changing people, there is fundamentally no lasting change.

Good leaders have the ability to lead even with an imperfect system. It is not the system that is necessarily corrupt. It is the people!

Where is Tonga heading now?

The remnants of the mess created by the failure of the Pro-democracy movement do not need to be picked up. The winds of disgust and disappointment will sweep them away. There needs to be a whole reconstruction of a governance structure as well as a leadership that is focused on character instead of power mongering.

A new Government is now ruling Tonga. They have been in office less than a year. They have deliberately and consciously departed from the party and practice of the Pohiva Government. They are set to reverse the direction that preoccupied the previous Government. They may or may not provide the solutions needed for Tonga at this time.

They may be just an interim Government, but they need to be held to account, in this early stage of their administration.

We must give them time to prove themselves. But there is no promise yet for a social movement that would affect the whole island nation until a leader rises to lead a moral and spiritual movement of reform.

It is not a political solution that is needed for Tonga. That solution has failed; in fact, the patient became much worse. We must re-establish the moral and spiritual foundations that made Tonga great as a creative, independent, and God-fearing people.



  1. Thank you ‘Eakalafi Moala, I totally agree from the first word to the last word of your post. The last gov failed it’s people and country terribly, yes let’s give this interim gov time to prove themselves, and wish for the best.
    Thank you god bless.

  2. Interim Government ???? I don’t think so I call it new Government now until the next election they are doing a great job for all people of Tonga what they really need to be done,the last Government really mess up the Government big time we all know that thank God he’s gone for good


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