The Pacific’s last remaining monarchy has taken a unique approach to balancing executive powers between the king and the parliament, Mele Tupou Vaitohi reveals.
Tonga knows how to do coronations.
When the current King Tupou VI was crowned in 2015 the celebrations lasted 11 days, unlike the more modest three-day programme planned for Britain’s King Charles III.
They began with a kava ceremony and traditional gifts from local chiefs being presented to the king, reached their zenith with the formal crowning of the king and queen at the Royal Palace grounds and ended with a military tattoo.
The crowning of King Tupou VI was also notable for being the first under Tonga’s more democratically-elected government, following the most significant constitutional reforms in the country’s history in 2010.
Multiple attempts have been made to further amend the constitution since then, but they remain the only significant amendments to have been passed.
The people of Tonga pride themselves on being the last remaining monarchy in the Pacific and having never ceded their sovereignty, despite coming under Britain’s protection in 1900, and joining the Commonwealth in 1970.
Eminent Pacific researcher, the late Guy Powles, attributed Tonga’s political stability to this “unique amalgam of Tongan chiefly authority and British forms of government and law” which was adopted and accepted by the people of Tonga since 1875.
The Tongan monarch had significant political power and authority as the head of government and the head of state under the 1875 Constitution of Tonga, up until the 2010 democratic reforms.
But the monarch still has absolute discretion on appointments to the Privy Council “who today serve as advisors to the monarch and also hear appeals from the Land Court but are no longer part of the executive branch of government” and the power of pardon under special clauses of the constitution.
That the king did not lose all his executive powers during the 2010 reforms can be looked at from two points of view.
Traditionalist Tongans believe people have trusted their monarch for so long that the best course of action is to continue to do so. The monarch’s wide influence as the hau or traditional leader entitles him or her to exercise royal prerogatives wherever there are gaps.
This means there is no need to scrutinise the law in great detail in order to define terms, to draw lines and pursue strictly correct answers. In fact, it is rather disloyal to do so.
Another view is that the monarch is also not immune from taking on new ideas and seeking new directions and policies for the nation. Accountability will be raised by an ever-vigilant population.
The 2010 reforms represented the first major change to Tonga’s political landscape since 1875 and were introduced relatively peacefully, which was seen as a great credit to the Tongan cultural values of restraint, respect and responsibility.
They diluted the power of the monarch by shifting some of his executive power to the Legislative Assembly, primarily the cabinet.
Prior to the 2010 reforms, the prime minister and other members of the cabinet were appointed and dismissed by the monarch. The monarch hence had a substantial degree of control over the government: ministers were directly responsible and accountable to the monarch and not to parliament or the people of Tonga.
But by the early 1990s, demand was growing for a more democratic government.
The first official step toward reform occurred after the general election in March 2005, when King Taufa’ahau (Tupou IV, who died on 10 September 2006) appointed to Cabinet two elected nobles’ representatives and two elected people’s representatives and appointed one of the people’s representatives as Prime Minister in March 2006.
This was the first commoner to hold the position of Prime Minister.
The pressure on the government and the monarch came from public service strikes and protest marches about public service reforms and utility costs as well as political change between 2005 and 2006.
In October 2006, the new King George V (who reigned until his death on 18 March 2012) publicly announced his support for political reform and volunteered to relinquish his constitutional authority.
Although George V was credited with his immediate support for political reform, he was criticised by many for insisting on some areas of influence, particularly in the appointment of key people such as all the judiciary, the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor, the Police Commissioner, in addition to existing powers such as ‘to pardon’, to appoint the commander of the armed forces and the powers in relation to law-making (assent/veto) and the legislature (convoke/dismiss).
This could explain why, on 16 November 2006, riots broke out.
The pressure eventually led to the establishment of the Constitutional and Electoral Commission in July 2008, which reported back in November 2009 proposing 82 specific recommendations and draft amendments to the Constitution and other relevant statutes.
The majority of the 52 recommendations accepted were directly related to shifting the majority of executive power from the monarch to the people’s elected representatives, who are ultimately accountable to the electorate.
Not only was this a political process, it also impacted the traditional and cultural powers of the monarch enshrined in the Constitution.
The most important power that people now possess is that for the first time their representatives make up the majority of parliamentarians, almost 70 percent. And there is now a mechanism for a vote of no confidence, which had never existed before, despite being present in most other Pacific countries.
However, there was overwhelming public support for enshrining the monarch’s position as a safety measure to guard against unconstitutional actions by the government.
The king is no longer part of the executive, which precludes him from intervening directly in day-to-day conduct of the administration of ministries or government departments.
The head of government is the prime minister, who is now an elected member of parliament elected by the members of parliament and appointed by the king according to the wishes of parliament.
Since 2010, Tonga has gone through multiple significant events which tested its new dual executive system of king and parliament.
Two attempts to further democratise the government through constitutional amendments have been unsuccessful, with bills passed by the Legislative Assembly in 2014 rejected by the king due to the lack of evidence the cabinet was unanimously in their favour.
It has since been resolved the bills need consultation with the public.
Five governments have been elected, one of which was after the king dissolved Parliament in 2017 and one resulted after the then prime minister died in 2019.
There have been three motions of votes of no confidence in 2012, 2017 and 2021, all unsuccessful.
Although any one of these events may have given rise to a constitutional crisis, they so far have not, showing Tonga’s success at managing to weave together different principles which favour both democratisation and the status quo.
The perfect balance between king and democracy.
This article was first published in 360info.
Dr Mele Tupou Vaitohi is the research lead for the Pasifika Legal Education Hub at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. She is a leading legal scholar on Tongan constitutional law.