Royal family feud delays democracy for Tonga

January 14, 2000

As a new millennium dawned over the small states of the western Pacific, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga appointed a new prime minister - his younger son Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata.

The king surprised observers by passing over his elder son, the far more experienced crown prince Tupouto'a, who was widely expected to succeed the outgoing Baron Vaea of Houma. But Ibrahim Aoude, associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, said Prince Tupouto'a had declined to become prime minister unless he was allowed to appoint a new cabinet.

"The king could not agree as it would have meant surrendering some of his powers to the prime minister. This is a significant blow to the fledgling democracy movement, frustrating any move to constitutional change that was hoped to increase democratic participation by the commoners.

"Prince Ulukalala, who is known to be an opponent of the democracy movement in Tonga, will continue the tradition of being appointed prime minister for life, a practice that the crown prince wanted discontinued."

Philip Cass, principal lecturer in journalism at Teesside University and a specialist in the history of the Oceanic region, said: "This is as much a family power struggle as an attempt by the king to rein back the pro-democracy movement in Tonga. The crown prince upset traditionalists by challenging his father's decisions and publicly criticising Tongan culture and attitudes.

"Last year he fired the harbour authority appointed by his father and cancelled pension payments to ministers and civil servants who had retired but were still working."

He also publicly criticised his countrymen and attacked what he called "long, boring church services" in a country where sabbath observance is mandatory.

"In a rigidly hierarchical society, the crown prince's comments are extraordinary and will have been seen as a direct attack not only on the way Tongan society has developed, but on his father as head of that society," Mr Cass said.

"The prime ministership is a lifetime position and the relationship between the prince and his older brother could become delicate when he succeeds his father as the next king."

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