Kalafi Moala

The people have spoken! It is time for change. On 18 November, nine new people’s representatives were elected and three new nobles’ representatives. Eight incumbents retained their seats, plus six nobles returning to the House, in an election that will probably go down as the most significant of the decade.

Significant because the political party or group that has influenced and led the development of the political landscape in Tonga for 34 years was all but got eliminated from Parliament.

The big winners are the independent candidates who will command a majority in the House to select a Prime Minister of their choice. Thirteen independents will become the majority group in Parliament. And if they can get Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa on their side, they will have the majority to vote in a new Prime Minister without needing any of the nobles’ vote.

The big losers are the PTOA representatives. They did not just lost the election; they brought to an end the incredible yet tattered legacy of a movement founded by the late Akilisi Pohiva.

Since his death in 2019, the PTOA followers, and especially those who were supposed to carry on their former leader’s mission in propagating democracy, became fragmented and fought among themselves.

PTOA lost six seats, including three of their leading representatives. The only seats still held by PTOA representatives are TT 8 (Semisi Fakahau), HP13 (Veivosa Taka), VV 14 (Dr. Saia Piukala), even though it is generally understood these three representatives are not hardcore in their commitment to PTOA.

They could easily be incorporated into a new government with independents. They are not even averse to working together with noble representatives if they see it is for the greater good.

PTOA lost the election by their own doing. They operated in a drive of over-confidence in a world of fantasy where they believed they can still form the next government. They failed to recognize that voters are not fools. They failed to recognize that sooner or later people will be fed up with their bickering and false hope of grabbing power, while their mission to fight injustice and corruption fell by the wayside.

The People’s Party (PAK), which was without a credible presence during the campaign retained one seat, held by the current Prime Minister and MP for Tongatapu 10.

It is the end of an era in which political affiliation, especially with PTOA, was key in determining the future of an MP. But this seems the beginning of a new era in which those who run independently with no political group affiliation control the voting in the House.

Voters this year seemed more interested in the individual candidate – their character and how suitable they could be for Parliament – rather than their political affiliation. Individual merit more important than political affiliation.

When the King urged people to “Vote Wisely”, the implication was that there needs to be a change in Parliament, and consequently in Government. People had to vote differently. Many took this to mean: “vote differently this time because the way you’ve voted before was not wise.”

Highs and Lows

Of  62,253 registered voters, 38,550 turned out to vote. This is the lowest turnout  in four elections since the 2010 Reform. ( 2010 – 91%; 2014 – 79%; 2017 – 67%; and 2021 – 62%.)

Of the 12 women candidates out of the total 73, only 4352 votes were cast for them

But there were four huge upsets in the key constituencies of TT1, TT2, TT4, and ‘Eua 11. The incumbents were ousted.

Siaosi Pohiva, a key leader of the democrat movement, and the son of the late ‘Akilisi Pohiva, lost out to independent Tevita Puloka. He was not edged out; he got stumped. Puloka won with 1695 votes to Pohiva’s 1114, a convincing margin of 581 votes.

Semisi Sika, the leader of the PTOA Core Team, who seemed to have built a formidable political presence in TT2 since 2010,  was ousted by a relatively political unknown, Dr. ‘Uhilamoelangi Fasi.

An educator, Fasi campaigned tirelessly. He did the most unlikely thing in upsetting Sika by 166 votes.

The third major upset for PTOA was at TT4. The late ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s son-in-law, Mateni Tapueluelu, lost his seat to the tireless ”nice guy” campaigner, Tatafu Moeaki, who pulled off 1237 votes to Tapueluelu’s 1116. The margin of victory was 121 votes.

His win was not only a result of a resilient campaign, but more so from the fact Tapueluelu had declined in popularity due to all the infighting within PTOA.

He was part of the PTOA Core Team faction. Siaosi Pohiva broke out from this group to form his own PTOA faction, which was called PTOA Komiti.

And then more recently just weeks before the election Sika and Tapueluelu had a fallout with all kinds of accusations going each way.

The PTOA problem was its lack of leadership since ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s death, and the jostling for power and control among the prominent members, as well as among the huge following in Tonga and overseas.

The fact that another PTOA candidate ‘Ilaisi Lelei ‘Ufi scored 225 votes means Tapueluelu could have won if ‘Ufi bowed out of the race and urged his supporters to vote for him.

A similar scenario happened at TT10, where Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa regained his seat with 1303 votes. However, both his rivals are from PTOA: Kapeli Lanumata with 1086 votes, and Vika Kaufusi with 468. If their votes were tallied together, they would have handed Tu’i’onetoa a defeat by a margin of 251 votes.

The other major upset in the election was ‘Eua 11, where Tevita Lavemaau, current seat holder and Minister of Finance, was edged out by Dr. Taniela Fusimalohi by only 13 votes. Fusimalohi scored 1072 votes to Lavemaau’s 1059.

All the winners cited in these four constituencies are new to Parliament. And all the losers were political veterans.

Where to from here?

An interim speaker of Parliament would be appointed within ten days of the election, and a special sitting of the House would facilitate the nomination of candidates for the position of Prime Minister.

All the 26 elect members of Parliament will then vote on a new Prime Minister, who in turn will appoint a new Cabinet.

It is expected that an independent MP would win the ballot for Prime Minister. And if popularity, competency, and sound political character are things under consideration, Siaosi Sovaleni could be the next Prime Minister. He was the only member-elect who polled over 2000 votes.

By the beginning of December, the island kingdom would have a new Government in place. And the journey to an uncertain future will begin for Tonga, with the challenges of Covid-19, illicit drugs, and widespread corruption still looming.

And the future for PTOA? Resurrection is still possible, but it would be easier for a new birth with a different character and different modus operandi.