Campaigning for 2021: Who will take the seat of power?

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Tonga's political landscape and leaders of current party system

By Kalafi Moala

7 September, 2020 – With just 14 months left until the next Parliamentary election in Tonga, the Prime Minister and his political party, Tonga People’s Party Inc. (TPPI), have taken the lead in campaigning for the 2021 election.

In fact this Government understood they were going to be in office for 2 years before the next election, and so it was critical that if they were to be in power for the next 4 years they need to use the first two years to campaign vigorously.

They came into power as a result of the death of the previous Prime Minister and a by-election won by his son. But the vote for Prime Minister did not go the way of the former Prime Minister’s party. They lost. A new Prime Minister and a new Government took over.

And so the campaign has already started, with frequent announcements of grandiose plans to build 20,000 houses for the poor and needy; a multi-million dollar controversial road project of over 1000 kilometers throughout the kingdom; and to compensate failing businesses due to Covid 19; plus other impressive promises, including lower air fares with a new national airline.

‘Etuate Lavulavu, deputy leader of TPPI, is the unofficial campaign leader for TPPI and the Government. That is not hard to figure out since Lavulavu’s wife, Akosita, is people’s representative from Vava’u 16, as well as a Cabinet Minister for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Tourism.

The leadership of Mr. Lavulavu in Campaign 2021 for TPPI and the Government is a no-brainer. He was the architect and driving force behind the alliance that elected Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa as Prime Minister to replace the late ‘Akilisi Pohiva. He organized the new party that included nobles’ representatives and independent people’s representatives. But this maneuver would not have worked without defection from Tu’i’onetoa and 5 others from PTOA Party.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Pohiva Tu’ionetoa, made mention of the fact that he was standing for PM as a member of TPPI, and he was elected Prime Minister as a member of this newly formed party.

Without hesitation, the Prime Minister made it clear that he was a TPPI member, in fact he is the Chairman of TPPI, and his friend ‘Etuate Lavulavu is his deputy.

But PTOA is still left with 9 representatives in Parliament including six from Tongatapu, two from Ha’apai, and one from Vava’u. They could still strike back if all would be re-elected, to form a formidable opposition. But that depends on a lot of things that need to happen, two of those is the need for unity among them and strong leadership.

PTOA is now a fragmented party with no clarity as to who is the leader. Three of the top leaders, include ‘Akilisi’s son, Siaosi Pohiva who is the people’s representative in Tongatapu 1; Mateni Tapueluelu, ‘Akilisi’s son-in-law in Tongatapu 4; and Semisi Sika, former deputy PM under ‘Akilisi in Tongatapu 2. These are the representatives that if they get their act together, they could pull off an upset in some constituencies, enough to maintain a PTOA presence in Parliament.

But it looks unlikely PTOA will be able to hold on to nine seats in the next election. With the exception of maybe 3 seats, they could be obliterated allowing TPPI to define the political landscape in the next several years.

This Government and TPPI are overtly confident of winning the November 2021 election, and returning to power. They are counting on handily defeating the PTOA democrat party and their candidates, who are still suffering from a sense of aimlessness since the death of their late leader.

As one former member of Parliament says: “It looks as if it will take a major disaster for TPPI not to win big in the next election.” But in Tongan politics things can shift swiftly, just as the weather patterns can change frequently.

The absence of any credible opposition to Government has allowed the Prime Minister and his executive leaders to campaign strongly without opposition, and largely supported by the majority of the populace. In addition to the frequent announcements of their action plans, the Prime Minister is regularly on air in the media giving political speeches. He may be overdoing it, but his voice is becoming quite familiar with radio listeners.

He is also frequently seen as a celebrant opening new buildings and houses, launching Government initiatives, and opening of workshops and seminars. There is nothing too insignificant that the Prime Minister could not be present to open or launch. The broadcast media covers all these events. The political capital in all these activities of the Prime Minister is expected to help bring in victory at Election 2021.

On the same front Deputy Leader of TPPI and chief advisor to the Prime Minister is busy campaigning too. Mr. Lavulavu is regularly on radio, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the party’s newspaper, Kalonikali. It will not be too long before the FM radio for the party is launched, and there you have another powerful campaign tool.

There are several factors, however, the Government and TPPI may be neglecting to take into account; factors that could be significant in their win or loss of being in power for another 4 years after Election 2021.

One factor is that of independent candidates and representatives. The independent representatives in Parliament have played a significant role in the election of the Prime Minister, both in the previous and present Government.

Some of these independent representatives include Siaosi Sovaleni of Tongatapu 3; Samiu Vaipulu of Vava’u 15; and other leading candidates such as Dr. ‘Aisake of Tongatapu 5, should he run and win in the election, that may pose as a game changer.

It is most unlikely that TPPI or PTOA could win a majority of the 17 seats for people’s representation. That is why there would need to be some negotiations going on among party members and independents.

Another key factor that has not been discussed openly in the media, is the effect of Mr. and Mrs. Lavulavu’s upcoming court case in the 2021 election game plan. This has the potential negative impact on the TPPI’s campaign and election should the court find them guilty of fraud charges involving $500,000 government funds funneled to the Lavulavu’s school,  ‘Unuaki ‘o Tonga Royal Institute.

The remaining factor that would be key in determining who is going to be in the next Government is that of the nobles in Parliament. The nine nobles’ representatives are often united in their stance on anything, and their votes would surely be needed for anyone expecting to win the Prime Minister’s seat.

There is strong indication that the nobles have been consulting each other with a new resolve to be much stronger and united in their stand for “king and country.” The re-election of Lord Fusitu’a as the noble representative from Niua is a move in the right direction. He is not only a noble of good standing for Niua, but also a significant contributor in Parliament, with helpful input in the debates as a lawyer.

The nobles, by the way, could form the most powerful political party operating in Parliament. As nobles they are not subject to the people’s votes. As such, they are independent of popular politics, and could be the power brokers in the election of Prime Minister at each election.

They don’t need to be fragmented by being absorbed into whichever party of the people. They are a party by themselves, with common goals and obligations to preserve Tonga’s ruling system and maintain peace among all the social forces in Tongan society. They are the ones that could decide the seat of power by forming a majority with either TPPI or Independents.

However, it is in the nature of politics to negotiate and compromise when necessary. After all it is a tug-of-war for power, but it is the one who pulls and pushes the hardest and wisest that could end up in power. The next Government will be tested in the seat of power, as in the previous, and now, in the current Government, as to how wisely they use their time for the benefit of the voters and the country as a whole.

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