Tongan king ‘voluntarily surrendering’ powers in favor of democratic reforms

AP , NUKU’ALOFA

Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 5

Tongan King George Tupou V has agreed to give up much of the near-absolute power his family has held for generations over the tiny country in favor of a mainly elected parliament, his official spokesman said.

The announcement late on Monday was made just two days before Tonga begins lavish coronation ceremonies to formally enthrone George V, a hugely ceremonial event that is expected to bring Tonga to a standstill for four days and be watched throughout the region.

The decision moves Tonga a step closer to giving up its absolute monarchy. It is one of just a handful of countries in the world where the monarch runs the government day-to-day.

“The Sovereign of the only Polynesian kingdom ... is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people,” the king’s palace spokesman, Fielakepa, the Lord Chamberlain, said late on Monday.

Like many Tongan nobles, Fielakapa uses just one name.

The people “favor a more representative, elected Parliament. The king agrees with them,” he said in a statement.

No time frame was given for the proposed changes to take effect.

Under the changes, George V, 60, will relinquish his role in day-to-day government affairs and he has undertaken to be guided by the prime minister “in all matters of governance,” Fielakepa said.

This includes the king being “strictly impartial” in meetings with Cabinet ministers and lawmakers and not making personal statements on political issues.

The announcement comes as pressure builds on the monarchy to end its iron grip on power. While highly respected as the country’s top chieftains, the royal family’s reputation has been stained in many people’s view by scandals and mismanagement that contributed to the country’s failure to lift itself out of poverty.

Since ascending the throne in 2006, George V has promised to speed up the reforms.

Last week, parliament approved a commission to develop plans to change the system of government enshrined in the 1875 Constitution. The changes will likely take effect after 2010 elections.

Also last week, the government said George V had completed a promise to sell off his business interests — stakes in Tongan government companies that had enriched the royal family for years.