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Elections boost democracy in Tonga, but what about the economy?

The 2014 general elections in Tonga broke records. A record number of candidates stood for parliament, including a record high number of women, voter registration was high and voter turnout reached a new record. But how will the new government tackle the steep challenges facing the island nation?

Tonga has had a colourful political history. It is the only constitutional monarchy among the Pacific islands and the only Pacific country not to have been colonised by a Western power. The Tupou dynasty has ruled Tonga since 1875, but the roots of this dynasty go back many centuries before.

The current monarch, King Tupou VI, is a former prime minister (from the days of appointed governments) and diplomat. King Tupou VI is regarded as a moderating force in the country and someone who, while clearly wanting to maintain Tongan traditions, has modern views about the role of the monarchy and the future of the country.

Tonga’s single-chamber parliament is made up of 17 people’s representatives and nine noble representatives. The November 2014 election was only the second election where commoners have held a majority of seats in the parliament. This new system was implemented in 2010 as part of a series of democratic reforms. Prior to 2010, the Tongan parliament had an equal number of people’s representatives and noble representatives, each with nine seats.

The new system empowers members of parliament to nominate who the king should appoint as prime minister. After the November 2014 election results were in, the parliament elected Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva, a veteran campaigner for democracy, who was officially appointed by King Tupou VI. As one of the people’s representatives, Pohiva is the first democratically elected prime minister in Tonga’s history.

One of the major concerns about the Tongan election was that even though a record number of women candidates ran for office, none were successfully elected. There is a provision in Tongan law that allows the prime minister to select up to two members of the 12 member Cabinet from outside parliament. This provision could have been used to ensure there was at least one woman in the government. But Pohiva has long opposed the idea that a non-elected person could be given a ministerial post over someone who was elected. It was therefore no surprise that he resisted calls to appoint a woman to the Cabinet in this manner.

The next few months will be a period of steep learning for the new prime minister and his cabinet, most of whom have not held ministerial posts before. Pohiva’s first speech highlighted a desire to start making changes from the inside the government first and then ‘out to the nation’.

Some of the very first decisions Pohiva has made have involved making cuts to what he considers to be the excessive expenditure of ministers and senior government officials. But Pohiva will need to do much more than make token cuts.

Tonga faces a number of significant economic problems such as high youth unemployment, low savings rates, and a heavy reliance on remittances andoverseas aid, which cannot be fixed by token cuts.

One positive for the Pohiva government is that, according to the Asian Development Bank, Tonga’s economy expanded by 1.5 per cent in 2014 and is expected to grow further in 2015. This will help finance much needed programs.

Pohiva has indicated that improving public services, which he described as currently having an ‘appalling’ reputation representing ‘waywardness’, will be a top priority.

The Pohiva government will also need to continue rebuilding much of the infrastructure of the Ha’apai group of islands, which were hit by a major cyclone in early 2014, leaving almost US$50 million in damage and over 2300 people homeless.

The recent Tongan elections mark a landmark step towards democracy for the island nation, but the new government will be tested as it attempts to tackle the nation’s major economic challenges in the coming months.

Areti Metuamate

Source: East Asia Forum

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