Tongans Vote Out 71 per cent of Their Parliamentarians
On 27 November 2014, citizens of the Kingdom of Tonga went to the polls. This is the second election since amendments were made to the Constitution of 1875 and paved way for the Tongan people to choose their government, rather than the Monarch. Due to reforms the Monarch has ceded most of its executive powers to the Cabinet of Ministers. The electoral system introduced in the 2010 election has two main components. The first component comprises the hereditary land-holding Nobles and honorary Nobles, who elect nine hereditary Nobles. Tonga is the only Pacific state where hereditary Nobles have reserved seats in the legislature. The second component is the people 21 years and older who elect 17 People’s Representatives (PRs).
Before the reforms the Legislative Assembly (Fale Alea) comprised of nine Nobles, who were elected by their peers and nine PRs, who were elected by eligible registered voters. The Monarch could appoint the prime minister and as many as 12 ministers from outside of the Legislative Assembly, who also became members of the Legislative Assembly – yielding a Legislative Assembly of 31 legislators. Participation by the PRs in government, unless appointed by the Monarch was limited. Reforms now require the Monarch appoint a prime minister as a result of the recommendation from the Legislative Assembly and the prime minister, who subsequently recommends the appointment of Cabinet Ministers.
Out of a total 51,447 registered voters, 40,727 came out to vote. Approximate 79 per cent elected 17 PRs from 17 single-member constituencies out of 105 candidates, using the First-Past-the-Post method. In 2010, a total of 144 candidates contested the seats. The main island of Tongatapu, where the capital Nuku’alofa is situated, is electorally divided in 10 constituencies. The northernmost island islands of Niuatoputapu, including Niuafo’ou, and ‘Eua, situated off Tongatapu each have one constituency. The northern islands of Vava’u and the central islands of the Ha’apai group have three and two constituencies respectively.
Five incumbents from the PRs were re-elected. Three were from the Tongatapu constituencies. Voters on Vava’u and Niua also re-elected one each of their sitting PRs. Together with the three incumbents who did not seek re-election, this represents a turnover of PRs at 71 per cent. Many candidates received significant votes from their own villages, however, the vote became split where there were several candidates from the same village. All incumbents, except three candidates re-contested their seats. The deputy prime minister was amongst those returned by voters. Most incumbents were actually edged out with five incumbents placing second to the winner. For Ha’apai 12 constituency, the margin was three votes, forcing a re-count of votes. The re-count confirmed the winning candidate, and also increased the margin by one vote. Four winning candidates received more than 50 per cent of the votes, a cumulative average of 40 per cent for all 17 elected PRs. The lowest percentage recorded is 29. Total formal votes cast was 40,633 out of the 40,727 votes cast. A total of 95 votes were recorded as Informal Votes, i.e., spoiled ballots.
There were 16 female candidates but none were elected. Two female candidates competed strongly in the polls for Tongatapu 7 and Tongatapu 9. Sipola Halafihi from Ha’ateiho village (Tongatapu 7) obtained 686 votes, representing 25.6 per cent of the total Formal Votes. She was the third runner-up. Vika Fusimalohi of Tatakamotonga village (Tongatapu 9) obtained 23 per cent of the Formal Votes and was the second runner-up. Unlike Halafihi with a difference of 136 votes to the winning candidate, Fusimalohi’s difference in votes to the winner was 76 votes. In 2010, none of the female candidates were elected but Prime Minister Lord Tui’vakanou, who is required to choose up to four Ministers from outside the Legislative Assembly, chose a woman to serve as Minister for Education.
Theoretically, the increase in the number of PRs, up to 17 seats, should also mean that the PRs form a government and elect the prime minister. But this did not happen in 2010 because of divisions between the PRs. The PRs comprise two groups—Independents and the Paati Temokalati oe Otu Anga’a Ofa (PTOA). Then there are the Nobles. PTOA is the only political party in Tonga and has field candidates in the elections. In this election, PTOA fielded candidates in all constituencies but won nine seats. It lacks the majority and has been holding discussions with the Independent PRs. With eight members in its group, they hold the balance of power to form government either with the Nobles or the PTOA.
PTOA leader Pohiva has aspirations to become prime minister but obtaining the support and cooperation to realise this dream is proving to be difficult. He has even offered several ministerial portfolios to a number of Independents to ease his transition to power. Although the Independents expressed a desire to see a PR to become prime minister, they do not wish to have their terms of support dictated to them.
While the Nobles also welcome the prospects for a prime minister elected from amongst the PRs, members of their group also have prime ministerial aspirations and to form government. Lord Vaea has been put forward as the Noble’s candidate for prime minister. The Nobles may form a government if they obtain the support of some Independent PRs. This happened in 2010 when several PRs supported the Nobles to elect Lord Tui’vakanou as prime minister who defeated Pohiva in a secret ballot. Lord Tui’vakanou’s government was essentially a coalition of Nobles, PRs from PTOA and Independents PRs. The prime minister will be selected and announced on 24 December 2014 when the Members of Parliament meet to elect the prime minister.
In general, the election was well organised. Candidates and their supporters freely and peacefully conducted their campaign, complying with the regulations governing the campaign process. Polling was carried out in an orderly fashion with voters exercising their right to vote freely.
Elections cost a lot of money to conduct. A key factor is the geography of the country. In Tonga, the numerous islands presented a logistical challenge for the election management body to adequately cater for all the voters in the small islands. More than 130 polling stations were set up with 46 per cent in Tongatapu. In Vava’u, 37 polling stations were setup.
Referring to Professor Guy Powles’ analysis on Tonga’s political and constitutional reforms, it can be stated with confidence that the political and constitutional reforms have opened the door for democracy in Tonga. The elections further consolidate Tongan democracy. Whether PRs become prime minister and form government is really beside the point. The important issue here is how the rules of the game and processes are tested to achieve the desired outcomes, in consolidating democracy.