The independents win the Tongan elections

Tonga’s election saw support for the country’s two main parties disintegrate, in favor of a significant new cohort of independents, Kalafi Moala writing.

People have spoken and voted for the change. On November 18, the Tongans elected nine new representatives of the people and three new representatives of the nobility. Only eight outgoing people’s representatives and six representatives of the nobility retained their seats in parliament, in an election that will likely remain the country’s most important of the decade.

The big winners are the independents who, with their number increasing to 13, now form the largest “group” in Parliament. If these independents vote together, they will have the majority and will be able to choose the next Prime Minister.

The big losers are the Democratic Party of Friendly Islands (PTOA) which, despite dominating Tonga’s political landscape for 34 years, has been virtually eliminated from parliament.

Female candidates were also the losers, with none are elected in parliament. 12 women ran out of a total field of 73 candidates, but only 4,352 votes were cast for them.

The PTOA did not just lose the elections; they ended the incredible but tattered legacy of a movement founded by the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

After his death in 2019, the party leadership, which was supposed to continue the mission of their former leader in the propagation of democracy, fragmented and fought among themselves.

The PTOA lost six seats, including three of its main representatives. The only party representatives still in parliament are Semisi Fakahau, Veivosa Taka and Saia Piukala, and it is generally accepted that none of these three is a staunch supporter of the PTOA. As such, there is a good chance that these representatives will rally with the independents to form the government.

The People’s Party (PAK), without a credible presence during the campaign, retained only one seat, held by the current Prime Minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa.

This election appears to mark the end of an era when political affiliation, especially with the PTOA, was key to determining a politician’s future.

This year’s voters seemed more interested in the individual candidate than his political affiliation. Perceptions of individual merit were more important than political affiliation.

It was not only the number of defeats suffered by the major parties, but the magnitude of some of those defeats. Siaosi Pohiva, a key leader of the democracy movement and son of the late ‘Akilisi Pohiva, lost to independent Tevita Puloka by a convincing margin of 581 votes.

Elsewhere, Semisi Sika, a prominent PTOA figure who appeared to have built a formidable political presence since 2010, has been ousted by the relatively unknown ‘Uhilamoelangi Fasi.

While part of the credit for these losses should go to many strong independent campaigns, the brutal internal struggles within the PTOA have had a much greater influence.

Ahead of the election, the party’s dominant faction, known as the PTOA Core Team, was shaken when Siaosi Pohiva broke up to form his group, named PTOA Komiti (led by a Committee). Then, a few weeks before the vote, the Core Team faction burst further while two of its most prominent members, Sika and Tapueluelu, fell out.

These infighting resulted in a lack of coordination between candidates, with PTOA candidates running against each other in some electorates, which likely helped independents perform well.

Worryingly, turnout fell to its lowest level yet in this election. Of the 62,253 registered voters, 38,550 voted. Peaking in 2010, when 91 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote, that turnout dropped in every subsequent election – 79 percent in 2014, 67 percent in 2017 and just 62 percent in this election 2021.

In a conference with reporters, election supervisor Pita Vuki said officials are still trying to determine the cause of the drop in voter turnout since 2010. But the drop this year could be due to the fact that there has many registered voters who cannot vote because they are abroad, unable to be repatriated due to travel restrictions linked to COVID-19. This includes over 2,000 seasonal workers in Australia and New Zealand who are still waiting repatriation.

An interim speaker of parliament will be appointed within 10 days of the election, and a special sitting of the House will facilitate the nomination of candidates for prime minister.

AThe 26 elected deputies will then vote for a new prime minister, who in turn will appoint a new cabinet. An independent member is expected to win the ballot for the post of Prime Minister. Siaosi Sovaleni is a strong candidate, as the only elected member to have garnered more than 2,000 votes.

By early December, the island kingdom is expected to have a new government in place. Anyone who becomes Prime Minister will face major challenges – from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to attack illicit drugs and widespread corruption. How the new government handles these issues will determine whether the seismic political changes that took place during the elections translate into good governance for the benefit of the Tongan people.

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