Ruritania-on-sea fears 'crooked' heir

Dislike of fat-cat royals bubbles in South Pacific idyll of Tonga
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The world's strangest monarchy is about to become a lot more weird. As the King of Tonga (pictured below) lies on what appears to be his deathbed, at the end of a 41-year reign, the first serious rumblings about the man who will succeed him have begun to emerge in this little Ruritania, set in the South Seas.

The King's successor is the deeply unpopular Crown Prince Tupouto'a, a graduate of Oxford and Sandhurst, who once called Tongans "squatters who would urinate in elevators" and is often seen in his chauffeur-driven black London taxi.

The manager of a Tongan media outlet, who did not wish to be named for fear of losing his licence, said: "King Topou was respected, if not popular. He did seem to care for the welfare of the people. But people are worried about the Crown Prince. The feeling here is that the guy is a crook. He owns the electricity supply and he charges as much as he wants. He gets fat on our cash, and there is no one to complain to except the man who owns it."

The Prince also controls the kingdom's mobile phones, cable television, a brewery and the cable television company. He once tried to sell the rights to the Tongan people's genetic information - potentially worth millions - to Autogen, an Australian biotech company. The Prince backed down only after public outcry.

A Tongan academic, who also did not want to be named, said: "There is a lot of feeling that we should be heading for a democracy. In a society like ours, there are no obvious candidates or figureheads, apart from the royal family. The power is all with one person. We don't want that. We'd like a constitutional monarchy. But the Crown Prince is known here as a player and manipulator. Maybe he'll be able to convince the people he will be a good King."

Last year, rallies in Tonga called for the King to surrender his near-absolute powers to an elected parliament. Under the 150-year-old constitution the monarch appoints all but nine or the parliament's 30 members, all of the judges and, until last year, all of the cabinet.

The present King Topou IV's eccentric moneymaking schemes are legendary. He entrusted Jesse Bogdonoff, a Californian investment specialist, with £13.8m of public funds. Bizarrely, Mr Bogdonoff asked to be made official court jester. The money quickly disappeared into a string of dubious ventures in the US. The King's wife, Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho, said to have been a "calming" influence, has had a stormy relationship with the media, castigating journalists who did not kneel before her as disrespectful.

Prince Lavaka Ata, the youngest son, despite serving as Prime Minister until 2004, described democracy as "not the great end-all and be-all". When the New Zealand government accused the royal family of corruption, he allegedly responded with a litany of sheep jokes.

His sister, Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita, has made millions through investments in Tongasat, a company that manages the local satellite franchise. She also owns Tonga's sovereign entitlement to outer space.

Yesterday, apprehensive Tongans were preparing the black clothes that they will have to wear for weeks of official mourning for their King, who is 1,000 miles away in a private hospital in New Zealand, surrounded by his extraordinary family.

Additional reporting by Kevin Widdop