Friday, April 16, 2010

Democracy comes to Tonga

Tonga's Legislative Assembly has passed a political reform package, increasing the number of people's representatives to 17. While electorate boundaries are still to be set (and are an issue of some debate), the key change has been made: representatives of the people will hold a clear majority in the next Tongan Parliament.

Unfortunately, the government has been doing all it can to try and limit that. Their latest move was an attempt to raise the non-refundable deposit to stand for election to US$500. In a country with an average income of only T$3,376, or US$1,790, that is a massive amount, and was a clear attempt to restrict elections to a contest among the wealthy elite. They didn't succeed, but were still able to raise it to US$200 - more than 10% of the average income, which will probably be enough to have the desired effect (though parties will be able to fundraise to pay it). Lowering it to ensure that everyone can contest elections should be among the first priorities of the new Parliament.

(Deposits are useful to limit the electoral contest only to "serious" candidates, but the aim should be to make people decide whether they really want to go through with it, not to impose a financial barrier to participation. In New Zealand, the deposit is $300 - not a token amount, but at the same time not beyond the means of most people, let alone a substantial fraction of people's annual incomes. You have to stop and think, but you don't have to be rich. It could probably achieve the same goal while being lower - $100 is most people's stop and think limit - but it probably couldn't go much higher without beginning to pose problems).

The next step for Tonga is elections in November, which will hopefully deliver a solid majority of - and government to - pro-democracy MPs. And then the real work of unravelling the damage done by monarchical cronyism will begin.