An internal split over leadership has cost the ruling party its place in a Tongan government, ensuring that a coalition of independents will be required to form a new administration.
The upshot of the 2021 general election was that the rival leaders Sēmisi Sika and Siaosi Pōhiva have each lost their seats after the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands fractured into two opposing groups for much of the past two years.
The collapse of the Democrats from eight seats to three in the people’s house of representatives has come on the back of turmoil caused following the 2019 death of Pōhiva’s father, ‘Akilisi, who was the first commoner to be sworn in as prime minister.
The loss of the party’s incumbent MPs came at the expense of seven independent candidates among nine newly elected representatives and a further three nobles that take up nine seats in the all-male Tongan legislative assembly.
The state of the parties is a far cry from ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s 2017 election win that secured 14 of the 17 seats available for the Democrats.
The loss of power to form a government for the next four years is expected to hand Tonga’s nobles more political clout, a throwback to the 165 years of monarchy rule prior to the 2010 election.
Incumbent prime minister Pohiva Tu’I’onetoa, backed with support from nobles, independents and some of his former Democrats, could remain in the country’s top job.
The Tonga’s People’s Party leader had defeated a no confidence motion from Mr Sika in January this year, and subsequently garnished enough votes in one of the 10 Tongatapu seats.
Nominations for the prime minister will be called in the parliament after the supervisor of elections confirms the results on December 2.
About 62 per cent of the 60,000 eligible voters turned up for the nation’s fourth fully representative poll since King George Tupou V announced, in 2008, new reforms towards a greater transparency and accountability in its democracy.
Shake up expected in Tonga
November 17, 2021
Nobles are expected to regain more power for the first time since Tonga announced in 2008 greater transparency and accountability to its burgeoning democracy.
The kingdom’s fourth general election under the changes to electoral laws will be held on Thursday following previous constitutional reforms from King George Tupou V that ensured that the majority of votes – 17 out of the 26 parliamentary seats – were elected through universal suffrage.
The reforms that were the first step towards a fully representative democracy that included eight new seats has after 165 years of monarchy rule left just nine remaining seats reserved for Tongan nobility.
But the death of pro-democracy activist and former prime minister, ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, in 2019 while in office, set off a chain reaction among unsettled voters in the past 12 months that will favour nobles in the national legislative assembly.
The Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands has been fragmented since their late leader’s passing after internal infighting plagued the most prominent party among the 60,000 eligible voters.
After the King dissolved parliament prematurely in August 2017, the November elections showed that Pōhiva led his party back into government on the back of winning 14 from the 17 seats in the people’s house of representatives.
Since former deputy prime minister Sione Fa’otusia, an ally of Pōhiva, returned from prolonged medical leave in New Zealand last year, he quickly switched allegiances to the new People’s Party to back in Pohiva Tu’I’onetoa.
But Fa’otusia, who passed away on August 29 of this year, had previously joined a number of the party’s cabinet in resigning their position following an unsuccessful no-confidence motion in Tu’I’onetoa.
The turmoil has ensured that the nine powerbroking nobles only require five renegade MPs amid the splintered parties to control the parliament, which includes electing the prime minister.
Political pundits from within Tonga are also expecting the rise of independent campaigners from the 73 candidates despite 16 incumbents choosing to return to the polls.
Further controversy including the jailing of former minister Akosita Lavulavu and her husband for six years for fraud after a court declared Etuate Lavulavu’s 2014 election win void following a petition by two losing candidates has also had a further polarising effect on voters.
That is aside from the death of ‘Akilisi, the first commoner to lead the country, who has left what former Tongan assistant legislative counsel, Ema Finau Ivarature, called a “political vacuum that is hard to fill”.
“There are no distinguishing electoral issues to separate candidates and political groups,” she said.
“Everyone is talking about the same issues – sustainable development, economic security, illicit drugs, Covid-19, health and safety.
“Although one faction of Tonga People’s Party candidates proposes political reforms, the polarising effect of ‘Akilisi – especially his moves against the monarchy and nobles, which rallied Tongan voters – is missing in this year’s election.”
Campaigning only resumed one week out from the election after a one-week lockdown was lifted following no detection of Covid-19 cases in spite of a repatriation flight from New Zealand last month finding one man had tested positive at the airport on his arrival home.
The campaigning ended 24 hours before voters go to the polls on Thursday.