Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It's 'Akilisi!

This is my favourite photograph of 'Akilisi Pohiva, the long-time leader of Tonga's Democratic Party who has just become Prime Minister of Polynesia's only continuously independent nation.

At Tonga's recent election, 'Akilisi's party won ten of the seventeen seats on the general roll; the others went to independents. The remaining nine seats in parliament are allotted to nobles, and most commentators expected the nobles to unite with independent MPs and form a government that excluded 'Akilisi. There was a precedent for this sort of manoeuvre: at Tonga's 2010 general election the Democratic Party won twelve of the seventeen seats available to commoners, but was defeated when the noble MP Lord Tu'ivakano fumbled together an anti-'Akilisi coalition.

The 2010 general election was the first to be held under constitutional changes that allowed for commoners to elect a majority of MPs. These changes were won after decades of protest by commoners against the privileges of Tonga's royal family and its nobles. In 2005 public sector workers staged an epic strike against the status quo, and twenty thousand people - a fifth of the country's entire population - marched through the streets of Nuku'alofa to demand democracy. In 2006 another pro-democracy demonstration turned into a riot, and scores of capital's shops were looted and burned.

In 2010, many Tongans saw Tu'ivakano's power grab as a betrayal of the spirit of Tonga's revised constitution, and a defeat for the pro-democracy movement. Tu'ivakano's government was widely criticised as corrupt and inefficient, and several of its members fell from power amidst scandals.

In the lead-up to Tonga's recent election, 'Akilisi insisted that his party needed to win all seventeen of the seats available to commoners, in order to forestall any new manoeuvres by the nobles. After the Democratic Party fell far short of its goal many of its supporters looked forward gloomily to another term in opposition.

When parliament convened yesterday, though, five MPs outside the Democratic Party sided with 'Akilisi, so that he had enough votes to form a government.

It is not clear what sort of policies Tonga's new government will pursue. Ever since he lost his state sector job in the 1980s for criticising Tonga's establisment, 'Akilisi has been preoccupied with the struggle to democratise his country. He has spoken and written ceaselessly about the structure of the country's parliament, the necessity of a free press, and the importance of depoliticising the judicial system, but has had less to say about state budgets and trade patterns. The Democratic Party has never produced a detailed plan for Tonga's small and troubled economy.

As the Tu'ivakano regime grew close to China, 'Akilisi made an alliance with the Australian and New Zealand governments, who are competing with Beijing for influence in the tropical Pacific. Now that 'Akilisi has taken power, his friends in Wellington and Canberra, as well as their friends in the Pacific offices of the International Monetary Fund, will be encouraging him to 'reform' the Tonga economy by privatising state-owned assets and making land and labour easier for foreign investors to acquire.

During the 1980s and '90s, democratic governments that replaced dictatorships in many parts of the Third World were persuaded to pursue the same sort of neo-liberal policies, to the detriment of their peoples. It would be a tragedy if Tongans gained democracy, only to lose their land and their way of life.

The example of several radical governments elected over the last decade in Latin America suggests that it is possible to reject the advice of the IMF without rejecting economic development. Back in June I tried to argue that Tonga could, like Venezuela and Bolivia in recent years, find ways of combining twenty-first century technology and trade links with traditional forms of social organisation and land ownership. Some commentators, both inside and outside Tonga, have regarded this sort of argument as romantic. My friend and former colleague Maikolo Horowitz, for example, believes that 'Akilisi has no choice but to implement free market reforms in Tonga, and to open the country to foreign investment (Maikolo explained his thinking during this interview with me).

For now, 'Akilisi's supporters are celebrating his election, and the latest steps in the long march of the pro-democracy movement. At the Seleka Club, the headquarters of Nuku'alofa's political and artistic avant-garde, the kava will be flowing, and the music will be blasting.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


AP needs a break

11:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you please explain: " 'Akilisi made an alliance with the Australian and New Zealand governments," Thanks.

4:54 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I think the Democratic Party and the Australasian governments have had a common enemy in the Tu'ivakano government, and have coordinated their attacks on that government.

Australia and New Zealand tend to act as America's watchdogs in the South Pacific, and they've been perturbed by the way that Tu'ivakano's Tonga has gravitated towards China. Like Bainimarama in Fiji, Tu'ivakano has turned to the Chinese for loans and aid, and has welcomed Chinese businesses to his country.

'Akilisi's newspaper, Ko e Kele'a, regularly condemns Tu'ivakano for drawing close to China and antagonising Tonga's traditional allies in Wellington, Canberra and Washington.

'Akilisi and Kele'a sided with New Zealand when it objected to Tu'ivakano's attempts to launch, with the help of China, a new domestic airline and squeeze Kiwi-owned Air Chathams out of the market. When Wellington punished Tu'ivakano by cutting aid for tourism and urging Kiwis not to fly on Tonga's new airline, Kele'a took New Zealand's side.

I think that the Australasian governments have been keen to see 'Akilisi as Prime Minister because they think he'll steer Tonga back towards the Western camp. I also suspect that they see him as a man who might be able to 'modernise' Tonga's society and economy by taking some of the advice that organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank have been offering for years. Wellington was upset by Tu'ivakano's launching of a new domestic airline not only because it was funded by China and affected a Kiwi business adversely, but it because it flew in the face of Western demands that small Pacific states like Tonga privatise state assets, rather than acquire new ones, and refrain in general from intervening in the economy.

Although I have had no time for the Tu'ivakano government - I experienced its pettiness and incompetence at firsthand - I am aware that Australia and New Zealand have a long history of bullying small Pacific states like Tonga, and that New Zealand's response to Tu'ivakano's attempt to launch a new airline was outrageous: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2014/01/letting-down-family.html

I can understand why 'Akilisi would make a tactical alliance with Wellington and Canberra, but I think he should be careful about how far he follows their advice.

10:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:14 am  

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