PTOA Chair preemptively purging party ‘dissidents’ for fear of being ousted?



The ongoing public battles between two factions in the Paati Temokalati ‘Otumotu Anga’ofa (PTOA, in English: the Friendly Islands Democratic Party) signals a fundamental divergence of approaches to Tongan politics.

There is an apparent deep clash between ‘Akilisi Pohiva (PTOA Chairman) and the ‘Old Guards’ of the PTOA led by ‘Isileli Pulu (PTOA Deputy Chair). It seems the schism was triggered by a move by the Chairman’s team to reshape the PTOA candidates list for the 2014 general election, to ensure personal loyalty.

First question: Is this an internal coup in the PTOA?

For months now the PTOA’s newspaper, the Kele’a, has been dominating political debate in the kingdom. (The Kele’a was founded by Poviha but is now published by Pohiva’s daughter and her husband, the Editor, Mateni Tapueluelu.)

The Kele’a has consistently and overtly targeted those it considers dissident members of the PTOA. The latest campaign sprang from the ashes of the Pohiva faction’s 2012 attempt to unseat Prime Minister Tu‘ivakano in a ‘Vote of No Confidence’ (VNC) so that Pohiva himself could become Prime Minister. Rather than toppling the Tu‘ivakano government, the VNC shook the party to its core and its been struggling to find its center since. It is possible the issue might escalate.

The VNC failed to even make it to a vote, however Parliament and the legislation process skid to a complete halt for three weeks while it sorted itself out. During deliberations and aftermath of the VNC episode, Dr. Sitiveni Halapua (PTOA Deputy at the time) emerged as a favoured compromise candidate for a PTOA Prime Ministership.

Halapua’s slogan was “Kafataha” or “Cabinet of National Unity”. It was a strategy to reel Nobles and non-PTOA representatives into a broad power-sharing deal, and would have provided an in-road for the PTOA to take the reins of government. As would have been apparent, the pressing challenge for the PTOA was to provide a vision of governance and ‘tangible economic results’ after years of being on the outside of governance and without delivering any tangible results for “the people”.

The failure of the VNC gambit caused major shifts in the PTOA, with Tapueluelu’s Kele’a calling Halapua and Sione Taione (PTOA Party Secretary) “conspirators” who were trying to subvert the PTOA process and defect to the Nobles, run past Akilisi and take the PM seat. Halapua and Taione have also been labeled “manipulative” and “power-hungry” and “selfish” amongst other things.

Next up on the Kele’a’s hit-list was Editor Tapueluelu’s own father, Semisi Tapueluelu (Member of Parliament for Tongatapu 10). Tapueluelu the son, went after Tapueluelu the father, in an alleged sex scandal that supposedly occurred around a decade ago. It seems the PTOA did not vet its members enough, if there was a scandal at all. No proof was given, except Tapueluelu the son published the supposed name of the alleged illegitimate child, his half-brother.

The Editor’s weeks of campaigning against his own father slowed after the father threatened to reveal, with evidence, the names of up to 5 members of the PTOA who were committing “sexual acts” in the MPs offices at Parliament. Tapueluelu Senior says he “wired” the offices, and has video and audio evidence.

This may have been an attack too far. Public opinion seemed to shift against the Editor. Tapueluelu junior’s strong conviction is that his paper should act independently and have the freedom to criticize anyone it sees fit to be brought under scrutiny – even close family — as it would with any member of government. However, observers say it is not becoming in public view “for a son to publically denude his own father” and the issue is inscrutable because of apparent conflicts of interests or bias on the part of the Editor.

A little prior to that, the Kele’a went after former PTOA member — and former lawyer for the Kele’a — Sifa Tu’utafaiva (Member of Parliament for Tongatapu 6). The paper alleged Tu’utafaiva had an extra-marital affair after he took up the Ministry of Police portfolio following an invitation from Prime Minister Tu‘ivakano. When asked why he’d risk getting expelled from the PTOA to join Tu‘ivakano, Tu‘utafaiva said he’d asked his constituency about it, and they’ve agreed. He also said it was unfair for Pohiva to deny him the opportunity to join Cabinet, as many PTOA members including Pohiva, had acceded to be Ministers under Tu‘ivakano.

More than half of the PTOA, barring the members the Kele’a calls “conspirators”, have become Ministers, including Pohiva (Health), Pulu (Labour, Commerce and Industry; Tourism), Uliti Uata (Health), Sangstar Saulala (Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries), Sunia Fili (Finance; Police), Sifa Tu’utafaiva (Police), and party affiliate ‘Aisake Eke (Finance). The “conspirators”, who have not accepted or denied Ministerial portfolios, include Halapua, Taione, Falisi Tupou, and Semisi Tapueluelu.

Pulu was thrown into the mix after Chairman Pohiva asked the PTOA’s backing organisation, the Human Rights and Democracy Movement (HRDM) to appoint a ‘Selection Committee’, to chose PTOA constituency nominations for the upcoming 2014 general election. There would be no primaries, and no caucus. The Committee’s task was specifically to select candidates for Tongatapu ridings (PTOA nominees for the outer islands had already been published by the Kele’a). As it turned out, Pohiva chose the membership of the Committee. He also allegedly consulted them secretly even though the PTOA agreed that in cases where consultation was needed from the PTOA, Pohiva and Pulu were supposed to attend together.

A week before the Committee’s report was released, the Kele’a published what turned out to be a list with striking similarities to the one eventually produced by the Committee. Many of the PTOA incumbents that the Kele’a had declared “conspirators” (including Hapalpua, Taione, Tupou and Tapueluelu) were dropped and replaced with new names that are personally loyal to Pohiva. The Kele’a declared the Committee’s nominations list as “final”, causing uproar from the incumbents who were dropped, and claim there was “injustice” involved.

Even though Pulu himself kept his nomination, he publically denounced the Committee’s report and nominations list, citing foul play, and pointing at Pohiva. He says he does not accept the report, citing the process as not “clean” and “smells of rats”.

As a result, Pulu has been accused by Editor Tapueluelu and Chairman Pohiva of joining the ‘conspiracy’ against Pohiva. They say Pulu favors the incumbents because they are beholden to him (Pulu) for some reason, and that Pulu fears the new nominations because he has no connections with them.

The battle lines have been drawn between Team Pohiva (backed by his new nominations and his newspaper), and Pulu, Halapua and the rest of the PTOA Old Guard. The rift is getting deeper and deeper every week.

Is the PTOA rift reversible?

It depends. No one person on his own can usurp Pohiva and come out unscathed. Pohiva has been the ‘face’ of the PTOA for too long and having your own aggressive newspaper definitely helps.

It’s hard to tell if the PTOA has reached an inflection point – a point of no return– and that the PTOA is what ‘experts’ might call ‘FUBAR’.

Both camps have made what might be seen as “unforgivable” statements against each other side. How bad does a statement have to be that one’s political futures have been hurt to the point where only an ‘all out war’ can recover one from that dishonoring state? That is where the lines are drawn. Are these ‘wars of words’ amendable?

If so, then rationality dictates that all PTOA members will drop their differences to shore each other up in another bid for a PTOA Prime Minister and Cabinet. This approach would have to be also endorsed by Pohiva to work.

If the fractures are beyond the point of no return, then there are several different possible results. First, the ‘dropped’ members will oust the Chairman. Chairman Pohiva will not only be ousted, but forced to retire from politics. However, Pohiva recently stated he will run again — for the last time (this will be Pohiva’s second ‘last time’, as there were apparently similar promises made in 2010 to a fellow PTOA member from his constituency).

But the Pohiva name is a large part of the political capital of the PTOA. And there might be another snag. The PTOA’s only binding contract is an “MoU” (a set of general moral principles including “fidelity” and “honesty”), which (presumably) only applies to those elected to Parliament. Peculiar as it may sound for an organization that says it promotes democracy, PTOA membership and the PTOA nomination procedure are not clear and public. The results are public, but not the process. So, unless the MoU doesn’t give non-elected members of the PTOA voting power in determining who becomes candidates and who doesn’t, the incumbents should be able to outvote the leader of the PTOA and force him to retire.

However, much of the remaining political capital or ‘bite’ of the PTOA does not rest inside the PTOA but outside, in the PTOA’s propaganda machine, the Kele’a. As a self-sustaining commercial engine with resources beyond the PTOA’s, it is a very loyal and effective reservoir for Chairman Pohiva.

The remaining capital for the PTOA is the individual members themselves, and the cooperation they have between them. The recent list of nominations, the source of contention between Pohiva and Pulu, consist of a range of very newbie political aspirants. They are even more vehemently ‘pragmatic’ than the ‘Old Guard’, but because they are new, with shallow political identities, they are calculated to be very loyal to Chairman Pohiva.

Democratic ideals and reality

As the fiasco drags on, the divisions may solidify and define political platforms.

Pohiva’s idealism is clashing with that of his own PTOA, and with the public’s dire need for ‘solutions provided by the party’. Huge aid donations to the budget, high unemployment, dwindling domestic incomes, and spiraling foreign relations hem in the economy.

Thanks to century-and-a-half old land policy, food and water security is relatively manageable. Energy costs remain too high for major industrial investments, but the offset is that no public social program is tied to energy-intensive industries that can trigger an unemployment domino effect. Thus, on the home front, old policies have provided a safety net for domestic survival and subsistence.

The Pulu Team’s optimism about their own technical skills and experience allowing them to offer real solutions to fix the economy and bring ‘results’ to the people, might be fuel for the escalation of the PTOA divisions, as the incumbents believe they can go it alone and offer the voters coherent, pragmatic platforms.

The current government, although led by a Noble, is in fact the initiative of Representatives from the Outer islands. It is not that hard for any one of the factions in Parliament to form a government, for whoever survives the election hurdle. That challenge is not that hard given, that in 2010 the PTOA only won up to 30% of the popular vote and that in most cases, the vote margin between PTOA candidates and runners-up was not that serious.

The next three weeks will define the future of the campaign, the next government, and the PTOA’s own future as an effective political force.


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