Thursday, June 6, 2013

Island Politics

Since I imagine most people aren't well informed about the political system of Tonga, I'll give you a little glimpse. Tonga is one of the few remaining monarchies in the world. The king holds pretty much absolute power, and since most of the seats in Parliament are reserved for nobility, all the big decisions of the country are made by a select few. The king and nobles even speak their own distinct dialect of Tongan. However, the rulings of the king and parliament actually do not effect the lives of people in the outer villages much at all. We came to Tonga expecting the king to be a popular topic of conversation, but people simply don't talk about him much.

The "local government" if you will, has much more of a grassroots and traditional feel. Each island group is divided into districts with one representative to the national government, and each town elects their own "Town Officer". The Town Officer is a highly respected position within the community, and acts similarly to what I imagine a village chief would be like 200 years ago. Projects, disputes, development ideas, and any other important village matters are overseen by the Town Officer. And most importantly, he sits at the head table and gives the last speech at feasts. As is highly recommended as a good strategy for Peace Corps Volunteers, we have built a good relationship with our Town Officer and are sure to keep him in the loop and work with him whenever possible.

This last month, we got the unique opportunity to observe the election of a new Town Officer. Elections are held every three years, and once a TO has served for a consecutive 15 years, he is not allowed to run again. Sateki, our current TO, is very popular and respected, but this year, he hit his 15 year mark. So, it was guaranteed that we would have a new TO this year, and it came down through the village grapevine that three men would be running for the position. We were curious about the process, since it would affect us as volunteers, and when someone told me that there would be "campaigning", I was certainly intrigued.

But, as with all things in Tonga, things are done traditionally, respectfully, and in absolutely no rush. The campaigning that occurred was simply done in the kava circle - the same thing that happens every night. No debates, no slogans, no advertising. Just about a month before elections, there were a few faikavas in which at some point in the evening, a candidate would give a quick, five minute speech about their plans if they were to be elected. And as with all formal speeches, done at every single occasion big or small, they were received warmly and respectfully. Despite all mixed feelings about being here, the simplicity of village life will always be something I love.

Long story short, a winner was chosen a couple of weeks ago, announced the same day as the vote. It was the man that most people predicted to win. The two that lost were from the same church and supposedly the same family, so it seemed inevitable. (we're learning that we can really trace the whole village back to maybe 3-4 families) He begins his term in July, so we are interested to see how this change in leadership will affect things for us. Though, we are sure not much will change, as things in the village continue as they have always continued - slowly and steadily...


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