Tonga - Political background

Renowned for its highly stratified, ascribed status society, consisting of king, chief, and commoner classes, Tonga established an elaborate political structure long before European contact in the 18th century. By 1835, after a period of political unrest and civil wars between the various clans, a chief named Taufa'ahau emerged as the dominant leader. He eventually became King Tupou I, Tonga's first modern ruler, and in 1875, established Tonga as a constitutional monarchy.

Although Tonga distinguishes itself as the only Pacific island nation never to have been colonized, in 1899, at the invitation of King Tupou II, Tonga became a British protectorate, and all foreign affairs were transacted through the United Kingdom. Full independence was restored in 1970.

Tonga's political structure today has changed little since its inception in 1875. It still consists of three bodies: the Executive Council, the Legislative Assembly (Parliament), and the Judiciary, with the king exercising wide influence over all three. The Executive Council is comprised of the king, the Privy Council, and the Cabinet. When the king presides, the Cabinet becomes the Privy Council. The Monarch, His Royal Highness Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, personally appoints the members of Cabinet without election or public involvement. This includes Tonga's two governors and 10 Ministers of the Crown. All Cabinet members also act as heads of government ministries, and ministers maintain their positions until retirement. The prime minister of Tonga is the king's younger brother, Prince Tu'ipelehake.

The Legislative Assembly, traditionally the government's debating chamber, consists of only one house that meets annually. Sessions last three to five months and are opened and closed by the king. Parliament is comprised of the speaker, who is selected by the king, the 11 appointed Cabinet members, nine noble's representatives (elected by the 33 nobles of the realm), and nine people's representatives (elected by the commoners). There are no political parties; however, there is a prominent political pressure group, the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement, members of which won 7 of 9 seats in the 2002 election. Unlike other constitutional monarchies, Tonga's king is not a figurehead. He has absolute veto power over any laws put forth by Parliament.

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