A quick note on Tonga's new crisis
When I asked him whether he had plans to write a book about the Friendly Islands, Field said he'd like to publish a study of the democratisation of the kingdom, but that he didn't think the time was quite right. Tonga's royal family and class of nobles lost a lot of power in 2012, when the country adopted a revised constitution that gave commoners a majority of seats in parliament for the first time and stripped the monarch of his right to form governments. But Field told me that he didn't think the nine nobles who still sit in Tonga's parliament were quite ready to concede power to the seventeen commoners who sit alongside them. 'They'll push back', he warned.
It looks like Michael Field was right, because this week Lord Vaea, a long-time member of the Tongan parliament, has been preparing to put a motion of no confidence in 'Akilisi Pohiva, the leader of the Friendly Islands Democratic Party who became Prime Minister late in 2014. Lord Vaea is in Auckland with Pohiva, on what must be a rather awkward state visit, but his fellow nobles back in Nuku'alofa have been telling journalists and foreign diplomats that Pohiva must go. Vaea says a vote of no confidence will be 'a priority' when he returns to Tonga.
In an interview on Radio New Zealand this morning, Michael Field blamed the move against Pohiva on the elderly leader's increasing frailty, on anger over the Tongan government's desire to sign a United Nations resolution on the rights of women, on frustration at Tonga's 'enormous poverty', and on the refusal of the nobility to accept the dictates of the country's commoners.
The nine nobles in Tonga's parliament have tended to act as a bloc, and are probably united now in wanting to get rid of Pohiva. The nobles were elected by a few dozen of their peers, and are thus insulated from public opinion, but they must persuade five of the popularly elected commoner MPs to their side if they want to vote Pohiva out of office. Field is not sure that they will be able to do this.
Michael Field is hardly alone in believing that Tonga's democratisation is an unfinished story. 'Akilisi Pohiva and his supporters in the country's media have often lamented the way that the revised 2012 constitution gives nobles a third of the seats in parliament by right. Pohiva has at times talked of abolishing the seats, and at other times suggested that they should at least be popularly elected.
If they move as a bloc against the Pohiva government with light support from commoner MPs, then Tonga's nobles will be putting themselves in a dangerous situation. Defenders of Tonga's constitutional arrangements like Tevita Motulalo, with whom I had a less than amicable discussion back in 2014, have insisted that the nobles ought to have places reserved for them in parliament because they represent the kingdom's traditions and culture, and can act as apolitical advisers to representatives of the commoners. That argument was always nonsense, and a power grab by the nobility will expose it as nonsense to every Tongan. Tongans took to the streets in the tens of thousands in 2005 and 2006 to demand democracy; it wouldn't be surprising to see them take to the streets again, in defence of their popular Prime Minister. The reforms of 2012 could turn into the revolution of 2016.
Footnote: In this essay for EyeContact I tried to give a sense of how the struggle between Tonga's democrats and authoritarians plays out in everyday life, and in art.
Update: looks like the vote of no confidence will come on August the 15th.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]