Decision point for 2014 Elections: Political system, or the economy?


(Hint: It’s the economy, stupid!)

The major decision point for Tonga’s 2014 election are the same two that have been there for a long time. Once again Tongans are being asked to choose between voting to restructure the foundations of the state and government, or the tedious slogging job of improving the economy.

if a new government arrives, either one of these would be the strict mandate for the government to work on for years to come.

The first proposition is campaigned for by the 17 candidates of its longstanding champion, the Democratic Party of the Friendly Isles, led by the election’s most powerful candidate and MP, Mr. ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

The second is common amongst most of the other 107 candidates, the so-called “Independents”, who are prioritizing improving the economy and the job/livelihood situation.

Pohiva and his party argue that without a ‘properly’ balanced government structure, there can never be an “economy”. This is because there is just “too much corruption” (his campaign slogan), and unless the leaks are plugged, there is no hope for any real economic improvement.

On the other hand, the rationale for Independents who are prioritizing the economy is there can never be any meaningful government structure if there is no economy. Now, or ever!

Hearing the two messages repeated side-by-side, voters can be excused if they’re dumbfounded by the seeming ‘chicken and egg’ situation.

Additionally, the two conflicting messages are presented through completely different underlying sentiment.

The campaign for restructuring “due to corruption”, as pursued by Pohiva and Co., is fast faced, very emotional, focuses on ‘morality’, and leaks pessimism the whole way through. It capitalizes on conspiracy theories and speculation. It is the old fashioned politics of fear.

Meanwhile, the campaign for the economy spurs optimism. Growing markets and investments is often a leadership issue. People need to believe in positive futures for consumers and workers to be willing to pour their efforts into the market.

If consumers and producers are skeptical about the market, they’ll withdraw from spending and investing. That brings on recession and plummets cash flows to businesses, which affects their services and standards (etc). So, the politics of economies are the politics of hope!



These two strategies – fear versus hope – do not comfortably exist together. They are two solvents soluble in the same solution. Unless the voters understand the situation inside out, and are not naïve, fickle, and irrational, there doesn’t seem a pathway to hope. It is much more immediate, effective, and visceral to utilize the politics of fear than the politics of hope.

But if there had never been hope, Tongans would never have gone out to other lands, or built the Ha’amonga, or sent missionaries around the world. Queen Salote would never have impressed the world with Tongan grace and culture. Instead, we would have cowered in our villages, paralysed by fear, finding others to blame for our failures.

It’s the stupid economy, genius!

Ever since James Carville coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid!” for Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992, the term has found itself a fitting description all over the world from time to time.

Once again it’s on. In an era of intensified international competition and globalisation, one cannot ignore the importance of the economy.

Tonga’s economic situation is not that bad. It’s recent average growth rate of around 1% is better than Italy, Greece, Spain and many others. The debt is high but, again, many major countries have a much higher percentage of debt, combined with even larger deficits (meaning the hole they are in is getting deeper fast than they can fill it).  The situation is certainly not ideal but things are not catastrophic, and development partners and strategic relations would not let the Tongan government go bust as in Greece or elsewhere.

What is actually critical is burgeoning youth population, with over 50% of the population under 24. Not only do they need work themselves, they would soon be starting families of their own. Ramping up growth to provide opportunities for them, especially opportunities for more white-collar jobs, is important.

Given Tonga’s relatively high education levels, Tonga should be able to quickly build a service-oriented economy, rather than the environmentally exploitative and weak model surviving now. Currently, with no jobs, and so little hope, the overflowing youth population is resorting to clashes and the government exporting ‘seasonal viticulture/horticultural workers’ (a form of modern-day slave trade).

Economic performance has also become the benchmark justification for regimes and administrations or all sorts. In fact, there is a little bit of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of the King’s executive prerogatives, when there were exports, tourism, manageable foreign relations, strong pa’anga, and strong decisive governments.

For the new system to be viable it has to prove it can deliver as much, or more, that the previous one. Some are asking if 17 MPs (nearly a 2/3 majority in Parliament) haven’t improved things, why would 26?

Now, the issues are so diversified and confused that politics have become divisive rather than uniting.  The tone and topics of the debate are fragmenting, rather than consolidating national, effort.

When one looks at the economy as a unit (and it is critical to have a unitary vision for the economy or else effort can be wasted or work to cross-purpose), in Tonga, there are four unrelenting critical factors that dictate the survival of families and administrations.

These are:

Location. Tonga, among all the Pacific Islands is almost furthest from the large economies of the Americas and Asia so our transport/freight charges are higher. Costs of travel and freight terrorize the business community, and families. An additional related restraint (which can be weakened with new technologies and approaches) is the cost of energy. Although a  problem elsewhere as well, in Tonga high energy prices are much more damaging to the economy as Tonga is at the end of a long supply chain.

Small market. At 400 million GDP, the private sector need to grow to provide opportunities for domestic producers and potential investors. This is currently being limited by, among other factors, very high interest rates.

Limited resource base. Tonga’s primary industry is agriculture, which is limited because of limited arable land. And even Tonga’s other resources are often not maximally used. For example, fisheries licences are more often sold to foreign fleets rather than being developed for the benefit of the wider population.
Small size. There are 170 islands, 30 of which are inhabited and only Tongatapu and Vava’u are commercial agro-regions for job generation.

Given all these restraints, an example of one way forward would be to enhance the quality of the economy by increasing jobs in Information and Communications Technologies. Innovations in software development and the like in intellectual property development are also available, and could turn Tonga into a tele-medicine and tele-education hub. India is talking about a ‘digital Fiji’. Why can Fiji do it and Tonga can’t?

ICT bypasses the problems of location, market, resources and size. It turns Tonga’s young, educated, adaptive population into a bonus, not a burden.

But this sort of completely accomplishable vision is built on hope and belief. Belief in Tonga. Belief in Tongans. And hope in for the future.

Promoters of a structural change are engineers, and promoters of comprehensive visions of the future are navigators. It’s about time, in the same spirit of change that ushered in the popularization of Parliament, that a change be also made in Tonga’s view of its destination, of its destiny.

It is time to let the navigators steer the ship of state. Once the ship is secure and afloat, engineers will still argue forever over what colour to paint it and what sort of engine oil to use. But if the ship has no direction, what is the use of having it in the first place?


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