Breaking down barriers for women candidates in Tonga

The Tonga 2021 general election was one of the most eventful in the nation’s history as long dominant political parties were ousted by a new wave of independents. However, despite this political shift, women are still excluded from the Kingdom’s highest elected offices.

To examine the factors restricting women’s political representation, the Fi-e-Fi-a‘a Fafine Tonga (FFFT) brought together female candidates and local political experts in December 2021, to discuss their experiences. Out of these discussions, a number of important barriers were identified for women contesting the 2021 election.

One of the primary barriers is that the common expectation of reciprocity in political campaigns requires financial resources that most women candidates do not have. The cost of election campaigns is a known barrier to aspiring women politicians the world over. With a compounding effect in Tonga, the expectation of reciprocity — that voters will be gifted food, kava, water tanks, and even road maintenance — makes it difficult for women candidates to compete.

Other Pacific nations have attempted to overcome this hurdle. For example, Samoa – which recently elected its first female prime minister – introduced the Electoral Amendment Act in 2014, restricting ‘electoral gifting’, which is understood to disadvantage women candidates more than men.

However, in Tonga, few voters consider this ‘exchange’ as bribery, which is technically illegal under Tongan electoral law. Commentators present at the post-election debrief noted the difficulty in proving a link between ‘electoral gifting’ and voter choice in the courts.

Another factor restricting women is that men remain ‘legitimate’ political leaders in the eyes of many Tongan voters. In 2020–21, the Balance of Power program, in partnership with the Tupou Tertiary Institute, undertook a large-scale research project on voters’ perceptions of women’s leadership. One thousand men and women were asked about their perceptions of individuals’ appropriate roles and behaviours in family, community, and political life.

The study found that 92 per cent of those surveyed considered men were more likely to have the ‘right’ skills and experience for parliament. In this context, the results of the election were not entirely unexpected.

Men’s privileged role in Tongan politics was felt by women contesting this election, some of whom noted at the post-election session that certain campaign spaces were decidedly off-limits to them. Kava clubs, for example, are often where men make their voting decisions, which are later shared with their wives and families on the expectation that they will vote the same way.

Additionally, whilst there are programs to support for women candidates, they are irregular and often organised at the last minute. Notably, a women’s candidate workshop and a practice parliament for women were organised only a month before the general election.

Participants at a December 2021 workshop for journalists, co-sponsored by the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) and the Tongan Media Association, considered that more attention to women candidates in Tonga was needed, and suggested that the women’s parliament be held annually.

In their post-election reflections, participants reiterated the importance of a strong women’s movement in Tonga that is driven by locals with local understanding. Such a movement would be able to hold the government to account on its national commitment to women’s leadership as expressed, for example, in the National Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Tonga Policy and Strategic Plan of Action: 2019–2025.

Even in defeat, women candidates expressed a sense of satisfaction that they had participated in the election, that some of them had posed ‘a threat’ to the incumbent, and that others had won the greatest number of votes in their own village.

The number of women who contested for the first time in this election is significant. Globally, it’s not uncommon that women who’ve been successful in entering politics have had to contest a number of times before winning a seat. The challenge is in supporting Tongan women to keep trying, and this requires more localised and sustained effort throughout the election cycle.

This article was first published on Policy Forum and is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.