Pacific's last king gives power back to his people

The South Pacific nation celebrates the election of a 'commoner' as prime minister

For 165 years, the South Pacific island nation of Tonga has been ruled by monarchs wielding near-absolute power.

Now, following its first ever democratic election, those powers have been drastically curtailed – and no one is happier than the country's Oxford-educated King, George Tupou V.

The monocle-wearing King, who is ferried around in a black London taxi, will play a largely ceremonial role following Thursday's poll.

And after pro-democracy forces won a landslide victory, Tonga looks set to acquire its first popularly elected prime minister – a notion that seemed unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

The office is likely to be filled by Akilisi Pohiva, whose Friendly Islands Democratic Party won 12 of the 17 parliamentary seats allocated to "people's representatives". During a 30-year struggle for democracy, Mr Pohiva was jailed by the King's late father, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, and charged with sedition.

Previous elections in Tonga were rather dull, with the monarch appointing the prime minister and cabinet, and a majority of seats reserved for titled landowners. Nine seats are still ring-fenced for "nobles" – the descendants of 19th-century cannibal warlords – but the balance has swung resoundingly towards "commoners".

The 100,000 inhabitants of Tonga's 169 islands (36 of them populated) clearly enjoyed their first taste of democracy, even if it was somewhat diluted. Turnout was nearly 90 per cent. "We are now coming towards the end of the old order," said Mr Pohiva, who confessed to feeling emotional after his "long walk" towards achieving his aims.

"Now we are looking forward to meeting the new political era."

The winds of change have buffeted Tonga since the death in 2006 of King Tupou IV, one of the world's longest serving monarchs, and pro-democracy riots that left eight people dead and the capital, Nuku'alofa, in flames. Finally crowned in 2008, King Tupou V made clear that he would welcome reform.

In his father's day, the royal family were criticised for their extravagant lifestyles and their control of state assets, while the monarchy itself was condemned as a feudal anachronism. The present King, then the Crown Prince, was something of a laughing-stock – his hobbies were said to include computer games, toy soldiers and sailing motorised boats in his swimming pool.

But Tupou V has demonstrated that he is no fool, and it appears that he saw the writing on the wall long ago. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this week, he said: "I've always wanted to do this for the country." Asked why he had willingly relinquished power, under constitutional changes made earlier this year, he said it would not have happened without his "liberal European education".

New Zealand observers praised the conduct of the election, calling it "superb, absolutely free, fair, transparent". In an address to the nation on Thursday, the King himself described the vote as "the greatest and most historic day for our kingdom".

As results filtered through yesterday, Tongans took to the streets to celebrate. One new MP, Sione Taione, said the outcome was "too awesome", adding that "words could not describe the feeling".

The nobles, who gathered in a room to decide among themselves who should sit in parliament, have agreed to select a commoner as prime minister. Mr Pohiva's party is hopeful of securing the backing of two independent MPs, which would give it a majority in the 26-seat assembly. But tough challenges await a new government, with the country still suffering from the global financial crisis and the World Bank estimating that 40 per cent of people live in poverty.

The economy is heavily dependent on remittances from Tongans living abroad. The King, who likes to wear Savile Row suits and a military uniform, complete with pith helmet, can still dismiss the government and veto certain laws. Not everything has changed in socially conservative, staunchly Christian Tonga. Not a single woman was elected to parliament.

Ten Centuries of Royalty

*Citing Tonga's oral histories, the royal family asserts that some form of monarchy has existed on the Polynesian archipelago for the past 10 centuries. According to myths, the ancient line of Tongan kings began with the leader 'Aho'eitu, said to have been born to a divine father and mortal mother, who was followed by numerous revered tribal leaders.

However, it was not until an ambitious warrior called Tâufaâhau unified the islands in 1845 that Tonga officially adopted a constitutional monarchy. With the help of a British missionary (who later became Tonga's premier), Tâufaâhau declared himself the first official king of Tonga, adopting the title King George Tupou I after the British King George III.

Having limited the power of the tribal chiefs, the new king made Christianity the national religion and ruled as absolute monarch for 48 years before dying at the age of 97. His great-grandson became King George II, who notably signed a treaty turning Tonga's foreign affairs over to the British as part of a compromise that prevented the islands from being wholly colonised by a Western power.

When George II died, his daughter Queen Salote came to power. Implacably opposed to any kind of modernisation, her dictats prevented mainstream tourism reaching Tonga until the late 1960s when her son and heir King George IV, left, built an international standard hotel and airport.

After more than 160 years of absolute monarchy, pro-democracy riots greeted the current ruler's accession to the throne in 2006, prompting King George V to declare that 2010 would be an "opportune time" to fundamentally change the way Tonga is governed.

Enjoli Liston

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