Tongans walking in the democratic dark

The University of Auckland's Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau argues Tongan democracy is effectively meaningless if the people have no true translation for it in their language

When the New Zealand media proclaimed the landslide victory of the democratic party in the Tonga election on November 16, I thought what landslide, what victory, and indeed what “democratic” party? For out of the 39,000 voters, only 16,000 voted for the democratic party. And Tongan people don’t understand democracy, so incongruent it is with the Tongan world-view, culture, and ways of doing things.  

But what is worldview? It is how people understand and interpret the world and it is expressed in language as concepts – and there is no concept of democracy in the vocabulary of Tongan. Tongans use their language to talk about things Tongan, their culture, their environment and what is important to them as a people. So Tongans are familiar with concepts represented in the Tongan language by words such as ‘eiki (a person with chiefly blood), mehekitanga (father’s sister) or ta‘okete (older sibling of the same gender).  

Since the concept of democracy, and the word, is an introduced one, Tongans use the English loanword temokalati for it, but temokalati is not generally understood. For a word to be a Tongan, it must have a meaning known by the public. The loanword temokalati is not yet widely known by the Tongan public, so it is arguably not yet a Tongan word. Tongans who speak academic English and have been educated to tertiary level know the word, but many, many older Tongans, both in Tonga and in the diaspora, can only guess at the meaning.

Principles of democracy, such as transparency and accountability, are also introduced concepts so Tongans have had to coin words for them. I have heard both transparency and accountability translated as feongoongoi (when two or more people listen to each other), but that word is used in the context of friends, family, and small groups of people who agree with one another because they are able to talk about things before doing them. It does not apply to large scale groups such as a whole nation and its king, or an electorate and its representative.

Transparency has also been translated as ‘not to be secretive’ – ‘oua ‘e fakapulipuli – but that refers to a person being furtive, stealthy, doing things on the sly, and thereby acting suspiciously. Transparency, as an attribute of political leadership, is about people having a right to know what the leader or party are doing because of the money they pay via their taxes. So transparency carries with it the idea that it is the just thing to do in the context of democracy and, in a similar way, so does the word accountability. These terms assume a system which has written laws that govern political relationships where one party must report to another because that is the lawful thing to do. These connotations are absent in the Tongan translations.

The fact is, Tongans are not democratic by nature and they do not know what it means to be democratic, so we need to ask ourselves this: we may have a democratic instrument of election, and even a democratic party, but do the people who carry out the voting know what democracy is?  

So where did these rights come from? From our universal human society, which is not necessarily governed by the principles and assumptions of our Pacific cultures. Human rights of equality are contrary to the cultural rights of Tongan people, who have a king who is above all others, and chiefs who are above all commoners. There is a regal level of language used of the king, a chiefly level, an oratorical level, and a self-derogatory language of humility – all these speak of layers of society that do not have equal rights. In the Tongan cultural system, the king and chiefs and others of a higher status receive special treatment and special respect.

Democracy hinges on the recognition of equal rights – equal rights of chiefs and commoners; of the king and those who serve him; of the church minister and the members of the congregation; of men and women, of men and boys, of lawyers, of wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews, aunts and nieces. In the Tongan worldview all these relationships are unequal – in roles, in power and in rights. As a political system, democracy in Tonga is new compared to the first known monarchy in the late first millennium. The overriding principles and values of the monarchical system are respect, solidarity, resilience and sacrifice, and the question is whether they can co-exist with the principles of democracy.  

So what then are they voting for? I can only speculate they are voting for their closest family. That is much more in line with the Tongan worldview. Constituencies have extended families living together. It is easy for them to choose their favourite son or daughter. It does not matter if he or she is 'democratic' or not, or what the issues are. Which reminds me – two female candidates with PhDs would have given the guys a run for their money had they been elected. I think if the educationalist Dr ‘Ana Koloto had gone to Ha‘apai, to her mother’s people, they would have voted her in because the people of Ha‘apai appreciate a good education.

So democratically speaking, we Tongans are walking in the dark. Landslide or not landslide, it is time the democratic party started explaining what democracy is to the people. We cannot assume anything too drastic from this so-called landslide victory.    

Dr Taumoefolau was previously Principal of Tonga College and a senior education officer in the Tongan Ministry of Education. She was the first Pasifika woman to graduate with a PhD (her field was linguistics) at the University of Auckland.

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