Tonga’s king attempts to strip prime minister of defense portfolio

Stephen Wright
Tonga’s king attempts to strip prime minister of defense portfolio Newly crowned King Tupou VI (left) and Queen Nanasipau'u (right) stand before the delegation at the Centenary Church in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, on July 4, 2015.
Mary Lyn Fonua/AFP

UPDATED at 10:29 p.m. ET on 2024-02-06

Tonga’s monarch has “withdrawn confidence and consent” in two members of the cabinet, according to a letter circulating online, in a move that could overstep reduced royal powers outlined in the country’s 2010 constitution. 

King Tupou VI withdrew confidence in Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni to serve as armed forces minister, and for the country’s foreign affairs minister, according to the letter from the monarch’s advisory council, which gives the date of the decision as Feb. 2.

Tongan news site Matangi Tonga reported Monday that Tonga’s deputy prime minister had confirmed the letter was authentic.

In the ornate language of the palace, the letter says, “His Majesty, was pleased, by and with the advice of His Privy Council, to withdraw His confidence and consent” to the appointment of Sovaleni as armed forces minister and Fekita ‘Utoikamanu as foreign affairs and tourism minister.

‘Utoikamanu, Tonga’s only female cabinet minister, is one of four ministers who can be nominated by the prime minister without being an elected representative.

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.

Tonga in 2010 amended its constitution to remove many of the monarchy’s powers and allowed elections after more than 150 years of absolute rule, a change that occurred with the cooperation of the monarch at the time, Tupou V.

Some analysts have said the reforms were incomplete as the monarch, defined as a sacred person in Tonga’s constitution, retains significant authority such as a veto over government legislation. About a third of Parliament’s members are nobles elected by the small group of Tongans who have noble titles.

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. [AFP]

The shift of powers to an elected 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. Chinese-owned businesses were a particular target during the unrest.  

Tonga’s government hasn’t publicly responded to Tupou VI’s letter. On Tuesday, the website of the prime minister’s office posted a 40-minute video from Sovaleni in which he discusses progress the government has made in various areas. 

Sovaleni, who survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament in September 2023, is reportedly overseas for medical treatment. 

Tonga’s small economy, reliant on aid from Australia and New Zealand and one of the most indebted to China in the Pacific, is still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and a tsunami in 2022.

The headline of this story has been amended to reflect that the king is not authorized by Tonga's constitution to remove cabinet members.


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