Politically, Tonga is in the midst of exciting times.
Before King George Tupou V was crowned in 2008, his Lord Chamberlain announced that the new King would relinquish much of his power to meet the democratic aspirations of his people. Changes were subsequently made to the electoral system, and in the November 2010 elections the people of Tongan gained the right to vote for 17 spots out of 26 in Parliament. The other nine members are elected by the noble class from among themselves (there are 33 noble titles in Tonga).
Around 89% of eligible voters cast their ballots in this historic election. The Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands, led by long-term pro-democracy leader Akilisi Pohiva, won 12 of the 17 seats available to commoners. This wasn’t quite enough, however: the other five seats were won by independents and they joined the nine nobles for a 14 to 12 majority in parliament and elected a noble, Lord Tu’ivakano, to be Prime Minister. This irked a number of political commentators, but democracy had taken root.
In 2014, after the unexpected death of King George Tupou V in 2012 and with his brother Tupou VI at the helm, all 26 seats were up for election, although the King retained the right to appoint nobles, nine of which again gained seats, with independents pinching three seats from the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands to boost independent representation to eight seats. ʻAkilisi Pohiva is now serving as Prime Minister.
Economically, Tonga is in the doldrums, reliant on limited tourism, agriculture and fishing. Remittances from Tongans living abroad are dropping as second-generation Tongans abroad need their hard-earned cash to raise their own families – rather than sending it back to Tonga. International aid is also apparently dropping, though aid work from China and Japan remains plainly visible.
Psychologically, however, Tongan national pride is soaring, with the lavish 2015 coronation of King Tupuo VI and Queen Nanasipau'u making global headlines and captivating the whole country (Tongans adore their royals). Still glowing from its historic defeat of France in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the Tongan team went into the 2015 fixture in England with high hopes. A win over Namibia and a loss to eventual champions New Zealand was a reasonable return. All this excitement has done much to gloss over Tonga’s various problems.