Until 2010 the constitution was essentially King George Tupou I’s constitution granted in 1875, under which executive power resided with the monarch.
Under the 2010 constitution, Tonga is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy with a unicameral Legislative Assembly consisting of 26 elected members, nine of whom are elected by and from among the country’s 33 hereditary nobles, and 17 on the basis of universal adult suffrage (women received the vote in 1960) in a general election which must take place at intervals of no longer than four years. Up to two cabinet ministers who are not already elected Assembly members become ex officio members.
The Prime Minister is chosen by the Legislative Assembly and appointed by the monarch. The Prime Minister selects his cabinet who are then appointed by the monarch. The Prime Minister may nominate up to four ministers from outside the Assembly and on appointment they become members of the Assembly.
All land belongs to the Crown. Large estates have been allotted to nobles. By law, every male Tongan at age 16 is entitled to a small piece of agricultural land and a small town plot. In practice, there is not enough land and the majority of men have not been allocated any land, and latterly there have been objections to the exclusion of women. Consequently, reform of the land tenure system has been under discussion.
In the March 2002 elections the pro-democracy Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM) increased its representation in Parliament to seven of the nine people’s seats and issued new proposals for constitutional reforms to strengthen democracy and reduce the powers of the King. The King reappointed Prime Minister Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka-Ata. Though such moves had been unsuccessful in the past, the frailty of the octogenarian King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV and uncertainty over the succession now gave them greater urgency. However, in October 2003, changes to the constitution gave greater power to the King, and increased state control over the media.
In the March 2005 election, the HRDM again won seven of the nine people’s parliamentary seats, the remaining two taken by independents. In the same month two commoner and two noble representatives were appointed to cabinet.
In February 2006, Prime Minister Prince ’Ulukalala Lavaka-Ata resigned and Dr Feleti Vaka’uta Sevele became acting Prime Minister, the first popularly elected member of the Legislative Assembly to be appointed to the post. He was then confirmed as Prime Minister in March 2006.
In September 2006 King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV (1965–2006) died after a long illness and was succeeded as head of state by his eldest son who was sworn in as King George Tupou V. In November 2006, when it seemed that Parliament would go into recess before enacting democratic reforms, pro-democracy demonstrations turned into riots and looting, at least six people died and many buildings in Nuku’alofa were destroyed. At the Prime Minister’s invitation, 150 Australian and New Zealand troops and police came to Tonga to restore order, the King promised that by 2008 the majority of government posts would be filled by elected representatives rather than nobles and King’s appointees, and Parliament passed the reforms.
In the elections of April 2008, with a turnout reportedly less than 50 per cent, HRDM and its ally, the People’s Democratic Party, together won six of the nine contested seats and independents took three.
In July 2008 the Constitutional and Electoral Commission was established, with the immediate task of making proposals for a more democratic system of government. In the same month the King’s spokesperson announced that by 2010 the King would surrender his role in government to the Prime Minister and that most Legislative Assembly members would be elected. In November 2009 the final report of the Constitutional and Electoral Commission was delivered to the Legislative Assembly; the new constitution was approved by the Legislative Assembly in April 2010 and enacted in September 2010.
In the country’s first democratic elections, held on 25 November 2010, when turnout was 91 per cent, the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI), led by ’Akilisi Pohiva, won 12 of the 17 popularly elected seats, but remained short of a majority in the 26-seat Legislative Assembly. The remaining seats were taken by five independent people’s representatives and nine nobles. The Assembly members initiated negotiations with a view to forming a new government. On 21 December 2010 a noble, Lord Tu’ivakano, was elected Prime Minister by the Assembly, defeating Pohiva by 14 votes to 12.
On 18 March 2012 King George Tupou V (2006–12) died and was succeeded as head of state by his brother, former Prime Minister (2000–06) and High Commissioner to Australia (2008–12) Crown Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka, who was sworn in as King Tupou VI.
At elections held on 27 November 2014, the DPFI – led by ’Akilisi Pohiva – won nine seats and independents eight. At the first sitting of the new Parliament, the members elected Pohiva as Prime Minister. He was supported by 15 members and former Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu by 11.