Tonga’s prime minister resigns as defense minister following pressure from king

The Pacific island country’s Cabinet had initially said the monarch’s demands were unconstitutional.
Stephen Wright
Tonga’s prime minister resigns as defense minister following pressure from king King Tupou VI of Tonga [second from right] and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi [second from left] pose for pictures with Tonga Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni [right] at the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa, May 31, 2022.
Linny Folau/AFP

Tonga’s king has prevailed in a two-month standoff with the elected prime minister over control of the prestigious foreign affairs and defense ministries in a setback for the Pacific island country’s young democracy. 

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni on Thursday told Parliament he had resigned as defense minister and that Fekita ‘Utoikamanu – the only woman in Tonga’s Cabinet – had resigned as foreign minister and tourism minister, according to a statement on the Tongan Parliament’s website.

The statement gave no explanation and said no successors had been named. The prime minister “told Parliament that there is still no appointment for the Minister of Defence and Foreign Affairs,” it said.

The changes come two months after Tonga’s King Tupou VI withdrew his “confidence and consent” in Sovaleni as armed forces minister and in ‘Utoikamanu as foreign affairs minister, according to a leaked letter from the monarch’s advisory council.

The Cabinet had initially rejected the monarch’s attempt to sack ministers as unconstitutional and continued with government business as usual. Tonga’s Constitution says that Cabinet ministers can be removed by the king on the prime minister’s recommendation or a vote of no confidence in Parliament in the case of the prime minister.

Tonga King Tupou VI speaks during a plenary session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 1, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. [AP Photo/Peter Dejong]

However, in early March, Sovaleni and other ministers attended a retreat with Tupou VI for a traditional apology ceremony, a photo posted to Facebook by a member of Parliament showed. No statement from the government or palace was released.

Tupou VI’s heir also appears to have been acting as a de facto defense minister for several weeks. In mid-March, Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala led a defense delegation to Tokyo for security cooperation talks with Japan.

Tonga held largely free elections for the first time in 2010 after amending its constitution to remove many of the absolute monarchy’s powers – a change that occurred with the cooperation of the monarch at that time, Tupou V. Previously, most of Parliament was selected by the nobility or appointed directly by the monarch.  

The shift of powers to an elected Parliament and Cabinet followed riots in 2006 that devastated the capital Nuku’alofa and were sparked by frustration at lack of economic and democratic progress in the country of 100,000 people. 

Some analysts have said the reforms were incomplete as the king, defined as a sacred person in Tonga’s Constitution, retains significant authority such as a veto over government legislation and the power to dissolve Parliament. 

Nobles also remain powerful. About a third of Parliament’s members are nobles elected by the small number of titled Tongans and owe their station to the monarchy.

Newly crowned King Tupou VI [right] leaves the Centenary Church in Nuku'alofa, Tonga on July 4, 2015. [Linny Folau/AFP]

Lawyer and president of the Tonga Law Society Lopeti Senituli said the palace has for several years not followed the constitutional requirement to allow the prime minister to regularly report to the king in person.  

Sovaleni “has done nothing for which he should apologize to King Tupou IV,” Senituli said in a commentary for the Australian National University’s Devpolicy blog. 

“Had he been allowed to report regularly to His Majesty, any differences in opinion might have been resolved privately without the country being subjected to the rigmarole we are now witnessing,” Senituli said.

The ousted foreign affairs minister, ‘Utoikamanu, remains in Cabinet after the king appointed her as the minister for the environment and disaster management.

News website Matangi Tonga reported on Thursday that the foreign affairs ministry has two competing chief administrators – one appointed by the king and one by the government. It said the king’s appointee has sued the foreign ministry, ‘Utoikamanu and his rival administrator.


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