Tonga’s monarch has purportedly meddled in the Pacific island country’s young democracy by withdrawing his consent for the prime minister to continue in one of his ministerial roles.
King Tupou VI withdrew his confidence in Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, in his capacity as armed forces minister, and also for the country’s foreign affairs minister, according to an undated letter from the monarch’s advisory council to the Cabinet that has circulated online.
Tongan news site Matangi Tonga reported Monday that Tonga’s deputy prime minister had confirmed the letter was authentic. In the ornate language of the palace, the letter says, “His Majesty, was pleased, by and with the advice of His Privy Council, to withdraw His confidence and consent” to the appointment of Sovaleni as armed forces minister.
It’s unclear if Tupou VI is acting in accordance with Tonga’s constitution, which says that cabinet ministers can be removed by the king on the prime minister’s recommendation or a vote of no confidence in Parliament.
Tonga in 2010 amended its constitution to remove many of the monarchy’s powers and allowed elections after more than 150 years of absolute rule, a change that occurred with the cooperation of the monarch at the time, Tupou V.
Some experts have said the reforms were incomplete as the monarch, defined as a sacred person in Tonga’s constitution, retains significant authority such as a veto over government legislation. About a third of Parliament’s members are nobles elected by the small group of Tongans who have noble titles.
The shift of powers to an elected Cabinet followed riots in 2006 that devastated the capital Nuku’alofa and were sparked by frustration at lack of economic and democratic progress in the country of 100,000 people. Chinese-owned businesses were a particular target during the unrest.
Tonga’s government hasn’t publicly responded to Tupou VI’s letter. On Tuesday, the website of the prime minister’s office posted a 40-minute video from Sovaleni in which he discusses progress the government has made in various areas.
Tonga’s Foreign Affairs Minister Fekita ‘Utoikamanu, the country’s only female cabinet minister, is one of four ministers that can be nominated by the prime minister without being an elected representative.
Sovaleni, who survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament in September last year, is reportedly overseas for medical treatment.
Tonga’s small economy, reliant on aid from Australia and New Zealand and one of the most indebted to China in the Pacific, is still struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and a tsunami in 2022.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.