Where are we, and how did we get here?

A look at Tonga's political reform over the last decades

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 By Kalafi Moala

If there is one thing Tongans can all agree on, is this: we are not in a good place, socially and spiritually, in Tongan society right now.

Unless there are huge changes to our thinking, our choices, our values and patterns of behavior, we cannot move forward in a new direction in life. These key changes or socio-political reforms are necessary for stability in social transformation.

They need to happen, but not in the hypocritical way we have been led to believe over the last 2-3 decades. Most of us seem to be just waking up from a long social snooze that has allowed unprincipled and destructive leadership to come into power, and almost tore apart the very fabric of our Tongan life and values.

This is Part One of a series of articles that seek to establish the true state of our society as we find it today. We have undergone at least two decades of political and social instability; much of that instability has been due to poor leadership. Add to that poor leadership a populace that have gone through a mood swing from their commitment to a Judeo-Christian morality, to a religious embrace of a humanistic and socialist thinking and practice.

The articles that will follow in the series will look at the events of “how and why we got to where we are.”

In looking at how and where we are, let us consider the political sphere first, because that is where many of us are misguidedly looking for answers.

The late Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva was the man, who for better or worse, defined politics in Tonga for the past three decades. He was an incredible opposition leader, and for many years was a thorn in the side of Government. He was the chief critic, not just of Government but of the Tongan establishment.

I first met ‘Akilisi, as he was popularly known, in June of 1987. I was living in Japan at the time, but I traveled to Tonga to speak at an economic conference at the International Dateline Hotel, and that was where I met him.

At the time, ‘Akilisi was publishing an 8-page newsletter called Kele’a, with Uili Fukofuka as editor. The growing few, who were politically oriented at the time, were talking about him as a hero.

‘Akilisi was wrongfully dismissed from Government service because he had run a critical radio program called Matalafolaukai. He sued Government in 1986 and won. Then in 1987, he ran for office and won a seat in Parliament as a People’s Representative. He was in Parliament for 32 consecutive years until he died in 2019, having won 9 elections in a row.

What drew me close to this man at the time, was the fact that he was leading the fight against corruption. He was uncovering corruption in high places.

It is accepted worldwide that corruption is the chief impediment to economic development. And in small developing countries like Tonga, corruption unchecked is devasting to the economy and social structure.

I was to return to Tonga soon and to start a newspaper in 1989. The fight against corruption was one of the main focus of my newspaper – the Taimi ‘o Tonga – took up as an objective. As an independent newspaper, we were able to report news freely. We published quite a few cases of corruption in Government, as well as so many social ills that needed reforming.

That was how we became part of a free association, Pro-democracy Movement, that called for reform in Tonga. Changing Tonga to a democracy was only a minor part of our rhetorical pronouncements. We were not too sure what kind of democracy was needed in Tonga at the time. But we were united in the fight against corruption and the call for needed changes in Tonga – politically, socially, economically, and spiritually.

Whatever one thinks of ‘Akilisi – love him or hate him – he was definitely the most popular politician in Tonga since his 1987 election victory. It is definitely my view he was the most effective opposition leader that has ever appeared in the political scene in Tonga’s history.

For many years, the political divide was determined by ‘Akilisi. There were two main groups in Tonga, those who supported him, and those who opposed him.

However, when ‘Akilisi became Prime Minister in 2014, it soon shifted to more people who opposed him than supported him. Media named him as the “worst Prime Minister” in the history of Tonga.

When ‘Akilisi asked me to work with him as his media advisor in 2015, which I did for 9 months, the first advice I gave him was that he needed a major change in his thinking and attitude. “Right now,” I told him. “You still have a strong opposition mentality even though you are the Prime Minister. You need to take that mentality off – and replace it with a governing mentality.”

I told him there was no way he would be able to fulfill his rhetorical outbursts concerning good governance, accountability, transparency, and just distribution, unless he changes his mindset. Unfortunately, he did not take that advice, just as he ignored sound advice from many others who were close to him.

The five years that ‘Akilisi became Prime Minister (2014 – 2019), was the time it took for the dismantling of almost everything he claimed to stand for as an opposition leader. In the seat of power, what he said, and what he practiced were two different things.

PM Pohiva interviews for Forbes Magazine

He did the very things he criticized. He went against the very things he promised. And, he did the unforgettable when he lied his way throughout his administration. I know. I was there. I saw it first-hand.

I only lasted 9 months at the Prime Minister’s Office, after uncovering one of his lies in a  cover-up having to do with his interview and payment of Forbes Magazine journalists.

There is probably no society on earth that does not need reform. But in Tonga, we had our hopes up to an incredibly delusional level as we tried to enter the age of democratic rule by amending our Constitution in 2010. We thought good changes would be brought in, and miracles would happen in terms of becoming a stable, peaceful, prosperous, and happy society.

His Majesty King George Tupou V who orchestrated and approved the Constitutional reforms after consultation in Parliament, and with the public throughout Tonga, did not live long enough to see the effects of incompetent executive leadership and poor management of the reforms that came to being.

What were the changes?

The key changes in the 2010 reform was that the Executive Government will no longer be appointed by the Monarch. The Prime Minister will be selected by the elected representatives of Parliament, and then, the Prime Minister will select his own Cabinet from the elected members, and even up to four Cabinet Ministers were allowed to be selected from outside Parliament.

The People’s representatives became the majority when their numbers were raised from 9 to 17. The 9 nobles’ representatives remained the same, making up a total of 26 members of Parliament. Certainly, Tonga was now “more democratic” in its governance structure. Cabinet became the ultimate power in the Executive instead of the Privy Council. Yet the King retains the authority to appoint Judges, the Attorney General, and the Police Commissioner.

The King was also the Head of State whose signature is needed to turn legislation into law. Tonga was now a ‘Constitutional Democratic Monarchy.’

After over two decades of a ground level campaign by the Pro-democracy movement for reform, their leader ‘Akilisi Pohiva was finally elected as Prime Minister of Tonga in 2014. He took over Government in 2015 with a new Cabinet he had appointed.

What Mr. Pohiva promised did not happen; and worse, he did what he criticized for most of his political life. The country is still trying to recover from the effects of his poor leadership and incompetent administration.

 

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