OP-ED: Nobility MPs apparent split in election reflects strong anti-Pōhiva Tu‘i‘onetoa stance

OP-ED The apparent four-five split in the nobility MPs’ vote during last week’s vote for the premiership represented a strong dislike for what the outgoing Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa had done during his two year’s tenure as leader of the kingdom.

Lord Fakafanua (L), Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa, PM Siaosi Sovaleni. Photo/Fale Alea ‘O Tonga

While the balloting for the new Prime Minister was kept secret, it is hard to deny the fracture happened, given the revelations before the election that Prime Minister-Designate Siaosi Sovaleni had already garnered the support of 12 MPs while the remaining five MPs stood by Dr ‘Aisake Eke. Both groups vied to get the nobility MPs’ votes so they can make up the 14 number required to win.

The nobles’ split decision marked a political milestone in Tongan history, the first time any nobles had sided with people’s representatives in a move that would not really benefit all of their nobility MPs in the House. The most interesting twist in the nobility’s split was the fact that they did not meet with Sovaleni’s group before the election as they did for Dr Eke’s group. Tu’i’onetoa said few days before the election the nobility MPs met with them and they agreed to support Dr Eke. Sovaleni’s group said they did not meet with the noble MPs.

The obvious lack of horse trading between Sovaleni and the nobility MPs appears to show the nobles’ move was not political, but a mere show of rejections and refusal of some of the second highest social class in the kingdom to allow Tu’i’onetoa to be part of the new government. Tu’i’onetoa was a staunch supporter of unsuccessful rival premiership candidate, Dr Eke. We also suggested in the run-up to the vote that Dr Eke’s government would be no different from the Tu’i’onetoa government.

The situation showed that Tu’i’onetoa’s repeated attacks against democracy by campaigning to return the country to its former political structure before the 2010 political reform was in vain. His repeated attempts to mislead the nobility into believing that the PTOA (democrats) allegedly plotted to dethrone the king and form a government without the nobles were fruitless. Tu’i’onetoa was obviously defeated on all fronts and on all counts. Before the nobility MPs’ split and moved to support Sovaleni, Tu’i’onetoa complained about being dumped by his own Cabinet Ministers. He said he just found out after the November 18 general elections that their unity was untrue.

Before the general elections on November 18 the nation was already divided politically and Tu’i’onetoa not only appeared to have failed to do anything to fix it, he appeared to have incited it. He was the first Prime Minister to have announced publicly his ambition to take revenge on the Opposition MPs by excluding them and their individual constituencies from the government’s economic and social development policies. He made it clear to  Kaniva News that he would support only those MPs who voted for him to become the Prime Minister in 2019.

Tu’i’onetoa was accused of using religion for political and economical gains. Just after he announced his national fast and prayer services to protect Tonga from Covid-19, the media revealed the Tu’i’onetoa government had spent hundreds of thousands of pa’anga from the government budget while conducting the fasting services in ‘Eua. This was followed with the revelation that all the Cabinet Ministers’ spouses were paid by the government while they joined the Ministers on tour to the outer islands for the fast programme. The wide publication of the fast on radio, television and Facebook livestreams was heavily criticised as pharisaical and hypocritical, a reference to Jesus Christ’s advice in Mathew 6-16: “Do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting”.

Tu’i’onetoa was also criticised for showing no compassion after it was revealed his tours around the outer islands for his fast programmes and opening new government’s facilities mostly came with cultural obligations, which meant the poverty-stricken locals had to donate fish, shellfish, food and handicrafts. While these were normal cultural duties, Tu’i’onetoa was seen as a person who would make a change to that. His PAK Party manifesto said his mission was to “set up practical and meaningful poverty reduction programs at community levels, that meet the priority needs of the people”.

He maintained an apparently close relationship with fraudster ‘Etuate Lavulavu, who Tu’i’onetoa seemingly allowed to write his regular radio shows and response to media, even though he was not a parliamentarian or a civil servant. Tu’i’onetoa was regularly mocked by his critics when he appeared to be in difficulties in trying to read out from written documents and his slips of the tongue during live broadcasts.

Tu’i’onetoa was also accused of refusing for months to deal with convicted criminal and Cabinet Member ‘Akosita Lavulavu at the same time he acted quickly to threaten and sack his critics who appeared to have stood in his way.  He has been the subject of continuing criticism over apparent cronyism in the awarding of  the government’s multi-million road building contracts.

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