Image: Coat of arms, Tonga
The Constitution of Tonga, 132 years old in 2007 -- indeed one of the world's oldest extant constitutions -- has recently, for the first time in history, been subjected to significant scrutiny by the people who live under it. The review process has also canvassed the views of the thousands of Tongans who live in the diasporas of New Zealand, Australia and the USA. However, in the context of an increasingly polarised political debate, the translation of the outcome of that process into constitutional change is proving a difficult task for Tonga's leaders, and the two years that have elapsed since the general elections of March 2005 have been among the most momentous in history.
This paper attempts to stand back from the trauma and hurt of recent events and to ask some underlying questions. How is it that the Pacific region is home to a monarchical system that still rules its people, and what has been the secret of its success? What are the changes to the political structure that are already occurring this century? Finally, what order of change is in the air -- will it be constitutional reform on a major scale?
While considering these questions, this paper also offers a Political Chronology in its Appendix, as a summary of the events through the 1990s and early 2000s which culminated in the formal process of constitutional reform and the current scene. These years have witnessed diverse developments on the Tongan political stage, which, when considered against the backdrop of conservative society, must be regarded as remarkable.