Eight years after it was submitted to Parliament, Kaniva News reviews the Constitutional and Electoral Commission Report of 2009 and looks at one of the issues considered by the CEC: Allowing Tongans overseas to vote or have their own seats in Tonga’s Parliament.

In 2004 Australian academic Helen Lee predicted that what she called “long distance Tongan nationalists” were likely to want to become more directly involved in the future of the kingdom.

“In the not too distant future it would not be surprising if at least some of the overseas population unites to demand more of a say in the nation-building process,” Lee wrote.

However, despite making a sizeable contribution to the Tongan economy, having a discernible affect on elections and being closely tied to the kingdom through social media and frequent air travel, overseas Tongans still do not have a voice.

When the Constitutional and Electoral Commission convened in 2009 it considered the question of how Tongans living overseas could be represented and concluded that there was no point in changing the existing system.

Under the existing laws any Tongan living overseas can register and vote if they return to Tonga for the election. Tongans living overseas can, if they qualify, stand for election if the return to the kingdom for a set period before the voting day.

The Commission received submissions that Tongans living abroad should be able to cast their votes in the country of their adopted residence for any election in Tonga and that the overseas Tongans should be able to elect their own Parliamentary representatives.

The CEC Report rejected the submissions, saying they were largely based on the argument that Tongans living overseas contributed substantial amounts of money to the kingdom.

The majority of Tongans living abroad had chosen to live in a different community and their immediate interests would largely be associated with the places in which lived.

“Their generous contribution to their families at home is testament to their continuing wish to retain close family and traditional links with their country of birth or origin,” the Report said.

“If they really wish to play an active role in Tongan elections, they can return once every few years and exercise the same right as the resident Tongans by casting their vote.”

In contrast to this, Fijian citizens living overseas with dual or multiple citizenship are allowed to vote, but may not stand as candidates.

The CEC described the proposal that expatriate Tongans should have their own representative or representatives in Parliament as “impractical and difficult to justify.”

“Such a representative would principally be voting on matters which will have little or no direct effect on the people he represents or on their adopted countries,’ the Report said.

It said if an MP or MPs representing overseas Tongans was only allowed to vote on matters relevant to overseas constituents, much of their time in the House would be worthless.

But is the idea of expatriate Tongans voting for their own representatives in Parliament really impractical? And is it so hard to make a case for letting them have a voice?

The situation for the Tongan diaspora is very different from when the CEC made its recommendations. The political situation has changed, Tongans are even more closely tied and in New Zealand, at least, have a very solid presence in all walks of life. The decision by some of the best rugby league players to represent the kingdom rather than Australia or New Zealand in that code’s recent world cup certainly showed that loyalty to their homeland is not in short supply among many Tongans overseas.

The fact that ‘Atalanga in Auckland is considered a royal residence as well as a consulate also raises the question of why it could not be regarded as sovereign Tongan territory for the purpose of elections. Would there be anything to stop the government creating an electorate of ‘Atalanga for Tongans in New Zealand?

More than a dozen countries have special seats for their overseas communities. France has 11 single-seat constituencies for French residents overseas to be represented in the National Assembly. Italy has four overseas constituencies, which elect 12 members to both the chambers of Parliament.

In North Africa, Tunisia reserves 18 seats in its Constituent Assembly of Tunisia to represent Tunisians abroad. In Algeria, eight of the country’s 382 parliamentary seats are for expatriates. Many Tunisians and Algerians lives in France.

These are all countries with much larger populations than Tonga and ones where the expatriate population is even more widely spread. However, it should be noted that many of them are not rich western nations, but smaller, developing economies like the Dominican Republic which has seven Parliamentary seats for its expatriates.

It may well be time to reconsider letting Tongan citizens overseas to vote. If Fiji can do it, why not Tonga?  Given the experience of 15 countries around the world reserving seats for expatriate citizens, perhaps it is also time to reconsider whether such an idea for Tongan citizens is still “impractical and difficult to justify.”

The main points

  • In 2009 the Constitutional and Electoral Commission Report rejected the idea of letting overseas Tongans vote in elections or having their own seat in Parliament.
  • However, Fijian citizens are allowed to vote in national elections and 15 countries have seats in Parliament reserved for overseas citizens.
  • Under the existing laws any Tongan living overseas can register and vote if they return to Tonga for the election.
  • Tongans living overseas can, if they qualify, stand for election if the return to the kingdom for a set period before the voting day.