Tuesday, June 09, 2009

An 18th century model of democracy

Three years ago Tongan's rioted for democracy, burning the centre of Nuku'alofa after their monarch and largely appointed Parliament refused to move on democratic reform. Since then the Tongan government has been on a slow march to democratisation, with several committees and commissions established to investigate a way forward. The most important of these has been the Constitutional and Electoral Commission, appointed last year by Parliament with a mandate to produce a blueprint for reform. This week it presented an interim report [Note: SSL issues; ignore them and read it], and while its not a blueprint (there are no specific recommendations), it provides some idea of where Tonga is going.

Currently Tonga is stuck somewhere around the seventeenth century of Westminster constitutional development. The monarch is in theory absolute, the legislature is dominated by crown appointees and nobles "elected" by a tiny constituency, and the people have no practical say. In order to avoid the seventeenth century solution to that problem, the Commission is proposing to move Tonga's democracy boldly into the eighteenth century, with the Prime Minister and Cabinet appointed by Parliament rather than the monarch, more elected MPs, but also retaining the nine noble's representatives (out of 29 nobles in total), a monarchical veto, and the possibility of unelected Ministers (who it seems would take a seat in Parliament; necessary for accountability, but open to gross abuse if a government needs to strengthen its majority). As reform goes, its a massive improvement on the present system, but at the same time it also highlights just how far behind modern democratic practice Tonga is, if this is as fast as they think they can move.

Unfortunately, the timeline is getting tight. The king has promised and the people expect elections under the new system next year. The Commission must report back by November, but this leaves the Parliament very little time to enact the necessary laws. OTOH, if the king breaks his promise of elections, then there's a high chance of another riot. Hopefully that will focus people's minds.