The last king of Tonga?

Tongans have traditionally worshipped their kings. But the incumbent's subjects are increasingly disaffected – and revolution is in the air. Kathy Marks reports

The village chief, clad in a woven pandanus skirt, approached Prince Tungi on his knees and counted off the gifts that his people were offering: 10 pigs, one kava tree (used to make the local brew), 25 yams, a dozen hand-woven mats, 14 decorated tapa cloths. The prince nodded, his supplicant retreated, and the next chief prepared to abase himself.

That scene unfolded last weekend but ritual displays of servilityhave characterised life in the South Pacific's oldest – and last remaining – kingdom for hundreds of years. Tonga is still a feudal society where monarchs wield absolute power and everybody knows their place: royals at the top, below them the nobles, then the chiefs, and, at the bottom, the common people.

But times are beginning to change in the Polynesian nation of 171 islands. And when Prince Tungi's uncle, King Siaosi Tupou V, is formally crowned in an extravagant ceremony next week, the unthinkable could happen: a demonstration by pro- democracy campaigners.

The masses, who once gave the royals their unquestioning devotion, want to abolish a system whereby the king appoints a government for life and stacks parliament with his supporters. Dissent has been stirring for a while, but was held in check by popular affection for Siaosi (George) Tupou V's late father, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. He died two years ago, and his son does not inspire the same loyalty.

George Tupou V is an Oxford and Sandhurst graduate with an upper-crust English accent and only scant interest in Tonga's culture. A computer geek, he favours Savile Row suits, or a military uniform, complete with pith helmet, monocle and sword. He is driven around the main island, Tongatapu, in a black London taxi – which, he once explained, was "easier to get in and out of when you're wearing a sword".

His 109,000 subjects may be tolerant of such foibles but they are less forgiving of other sins, such as his use of state assets to fund his jet-set lifestyle; his lukewarm attitude to Tonga's twin religions, Christianity and rugby; his refusal to live in the Royal Palace; and, perhaps worst, his lack of a wife. "It's not normal, particularly for a king," complained a woman selling coconuts in Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital.

As the coronation draws near, the mood on Nuku'alofa's streets, where pigs snuffle in the grass verges and every other building seems to be a church, is positively rebellious.

Akilisi Pohiva, a founder of the pro-democracy movement, has campaigned for change for two decades. In 2006, he finally extracted a commitment for the constitution to be amended, allowing popularly elected MPs to double their representation and the government to be chosen from parliamentary ranks. But the reforms will not be implemented until 2010 – and many "commoners" are impatient.

Mr Pohiva, a gaunt-faced, charismatic man who has twice been imprisoned by the royal family, believes that if there are further delays the consequences could be serious. "The people will rise," he warned.

"If [the King] wants to save his neck, if the royal family wants to remain in place, he must share his power or surrender it. No one wants a revolution but it's bound to happen if they continue to be stubborn. The people are sick of His Majesty milking the system for his ownpersonal benefit."

The coronation – the first in the Pacific for 40 years – has become a lightning rod for discontent. Firstly, there is the cost of it: T$5m (£1.6m), an immense sum in a country where many suffer economic hardship."It's all coming from our taxes," said

Tovale Misinale, who has a vegetable stall in Nuku'alofa's central market. "We're very poor. We want to take our children to the school, but the money just goes to the King."

As Crown Prince, the King – and his siblings – benefited from their father's largesse. "HRH", as he called himself then, was given monopoly control of state enterprises, including an airline and the national electricity provider. He also owned a telecom company, a brewer (Royal Beer) and rights to the .to internet domain. Every time someone switched on a light, sent an email or booked a domestic flight, HRH grew a little richer. Which was handy, since the thoroughbred horses, the private plane and the trips to Switzerland were expensive. Not to mention the various royal homes, including his villa, a hilltop Italianate mansion with marble pillars, gold taps, swimming pool and half-mile-long driveway that now seems to symbolise his remoteness.

The King used to have a playboy image but he hardly looks like one now. When his taxi drew up last week outside his second residence, he climbed out with difficulty. He suffers from gout and "just about every other disease under the sun", says a friend.

After his father's death, the King agreed to divest himself of his business interests. Pesi Fonua, editor of the Matangi Tonga website, hopes he has invested the profits wisely. "Because it will be us funding his home and lifestyle now, and I'm not sure we can afford it."

The King cuts a lonely figure now. He has few real friends, and sometimes the only company he keeps is his dogs. Mr Fonua believes his hobbies – toy soldiers, sailing motorised boats in his swimming pool – are "probably the only way he can keep sane". Although he has had girlfriends in the past, Tongans speculate about his sexuality.

But he will not be short of company at the coronation. An estimated 5,000 expatriate Tongans are flying home for the big day on 1 August. Visiting royals include Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito. Rumours that celebrities such as Elton John and Mick Jagger might attend are, sadly, unfounded.

Among the activities planned are traditional dancing, a military parade, a fireworks display, and the lighting of coconut-frond torches along the Nuku'alofa foreshore. Hundreds of pigs will be slaughtered.

There have been last-minute hitches. London tailors commissioned to make the regal robes reportedly had difficulty sourcing enough ermine. New seats for the church failed to arrive on time. According to one insider, "The King went berserk and commanded that they be got here by hook or by crook. So they were air-freighted in at a cost of T$3m (£815,000)."

The coronation was postponed because of riots in 2006, sparked by frustration at delays in the political reform process. Much of central Nuku'alofa was destroyed as businesses owned by the King and the Prime Minister, Feleti Sevele, were looted and burnt. Eight people died. The violence took peace-loving Tongans by surprise, and some saw it as an attempted coup. Mr Sevele said in an interview last week: "There were some elements who just wanted to take over government."

The King has his supporters, including Kalafi Moala, editor of the Times of Tonga. "As King, he is marvellous," he said. "When I visited, he made a cup of tea for us." But Clive Edwards, one of the popularly elected MPs, is scathing. He claims there is little enthusiasm for the coronation, and that the authorities are trying to drum up support in the villages.

Mr Fonua points out that reverence for the royals is a new phenomenon. "If you look at history, the King never lasted more than a year. If the people didn't like him, they chopped off his head."

Isolated, poor ... and proud

* Only 36 of the 171 South Pacific islands that make up Tonga are inhabited. The country, which was never formally colonised, was a British protectorate from 1900 until 1970, when it became independent and joined the Commonwealth.

* It is the last Polynesian monarchy and remains a highly traditional and Catholic society. King Siaosi Tupou V's father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, ruled for 41 years. At one stage he was also the heaviest monarch in the world, weighing 33 stone.

* A quarter of Tonga's population live below the poverty line. New Zealand gives the country around £4m in aid every year but the Tonga economy also relies on citizens who move to New Zealand and Australia and send money home.

* Tourism, which is Tonga's main source of income, is growing, but it still has a large unemployment problem, particularly among the younger generations.

* Tonga is an ideal site for genetic research into common diseases, because its population is virtually untouched by immigration.