Political Rights Score: 5 *
Civil Liberties Score: 3 *
Status: Partly Free
An electoral reform commission, which issued its final report in November 2009, made a number of recommendations, including that the king appoint the prime minister only on the advice of the parliament. Five elected lawmakers were acquitted in September of sedition charges associated with the 2006 riots. An inter-island ferry sank in September, killing 74 passengers, and the ensuing investigation deepened public discontent over the government's mismanagement in its handling of the disaster.
Tonga consists of 169 islands that King George Tupou I united under his rule in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900, gaining independence in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV ruled from 1945 to 2006. His son, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, assumed the title King Siaosi Tupou V in 2006 and was officially crowned in 2008.
Politics and the economy are dominated by the monarchy, hereditary nobles, and a few prominent commoners. The economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans living abroad. Prodemocracy candidates were first elected to the parliament in 2002, winning seven of nine directly elected seats for commoners. Prodemocracy candidates again won the majority of commoners' seats in the 2005 elections, and for the first time, two popularly elected representatives joined the cabinet.
Growing public demand for political reform pushed the former king in 2005 to approve the formation of a constitutional review committee. In October 2006, the committee submitted its recommendations to the government, which responded with a counterproposal. Prodemocracy advocates, who rejected the counterproposals as too conservative and slow, launched a street protest in November that quickly escalated into violent rioting, leaving several people dead, hundreds injured, and 80 percent of the capital's business district in ruins. The king declared a state of emergency, and nearly 700 people were arrested, including five popularly elected members of parliament who were charged with sedition; the latter were acquitted of sedition charges in September 2009, though the state of emergency remained in place at year's end. Meanwhile, talks between the king and prodemocracy advocates resulted in an agreement – to be enacted with the 2010 parliamentary elections – whereby the parliament will consist of 17 popularly elected representatives, 9 nobles elected by their peers, and 2 governors and 2 ministers appointed by the king.
In the April 2008 legislative elections, the Human Rights and Democracy Movement won 4 seats, the People's Democratic Party captured 2 seats, and independents took the remaining 3 popularly elected seats. The new parliament passed legislation in July 2008 to establish a five-member Constitution and Electoral Commission to determine necessary reforms for the November 2010 legislative elections, including the role of the monarch and the composition and selection of the legislature. In November 2009, the commission issued its final report, which included over 80 recommendations. Among the suggested changes were that all members of parliament would be popularly elected and that the king could appoint the prime minister only on the advice of the legislature. The king's support for the various recommendations eased concerns of possible renewed violence.
In September 2009, a domestic inter-island ferry sank about 50 miles from the country's capital, killing 74 people. The tragedy had a profound impact on Tonga, which has a population of only about 100,000 and whose 170 islands rely heavily on the use of ferries. In November, the transport minister resigned, and over 5,000 people petitioned the king to remove Prime Minister Feleti Sevele for his poor handling of the disaster, including rescue efforts, investigation of the disaster, and aid for families affected by the tragedy. During hearings in November, the vessel's captain acknowledged that he had known the ferry was unsafe, and in December, a former senior transportation ministry official stated that the government did not survey the vessel before its purchase. The investigation into the disaster continued at year's end.
In September, the parliament rejected ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women on the grounds that it conflicts with Tongan culture, citing that it would provide women with land ownership rights and allow abortion and same-sex marriage.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Tonga is not an electoral democracy. The parliament has 9 popularly-elected members, 9 nobles elected by their peers, 10 members of the privy council, and 2 governors selected by the king. The king appoints the prime minister (a lifelong position) and the cabinet.
There are several nascent political parties, and prodemocracy candidates typically align with the Human Rights and Democracy Movement, which is not a formal party. In November 2009, a new political party, Paati Langafonua Tu'uloa, was formed to compete in the November 2010 elections.
Widespread official corruption is a major source of public discontent. The royals, nobles, and their top associates have allegedly used state assets for personal benefit, and transparency and accountability are also lacking. Tonga was ranked 99 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, the government has a history of suppressing media criticism. A Department of Information oversees all media reporting. Nevertheless, letters to the editor and commentaries critical of the government appear regularly in all newspapers, including those owned by the state or in which the state owns shares. In April 2009, the supreme court ruled that the prodemocracy newspaper Kale'a was liable for damages related to a letter to the editor published in 2007 which allegedly defamed the prime minister and his economic advisor; a court of appeal upheld this ruling in July. The government does not restrict access to the internet. The number of users has rapidly increased despite high costs and lack of infrastructure.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the government requires all religious references on broadcast media to conform to mainstream Christian beliefs. Academics reportedly practice self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the government.
Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld for apolitical or uncritical groups, though those engaging in protests and marches have faced government harassment. The state of emergency in force since the 2006 riots restricts public assembly in the capital. The 1963 Trade Union Act gives workers the right to form unions and to strike, but regulations for union formation were never promulgated.
The judiciary is generally independent and efficient, and traditional village elders frequently adjudicate local disputes. Criminal suspects may exercise the right to an attorney and a court hearing. While prisons are basic, there have been no reports of prisoner abuse.
Tensions between Tongans and ethnic Chinese have worsened in recent years, largely due to resentment stemming from the perceived Chinese domination of the economy.
Women enjoy equal access to education and health care and receive fairly equal treatment in employment. Women hold several senior government jobs, including cabinet positions and the majority of commissioned officer posts in the police force. Nevertheless, women cannot own land, and domestic violence against women is not uncommon.
*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.
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