Page last updated at 09:08 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 10:08 UK

People of Tonga go to the polls

By Ben Lowings
BBC News

Map of Tonga

The people of the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga have been voting in a unique parliamentary election.

Nearly 70,000 Tongans are voting to choose nine legislators in the 33 seat assembly.

Nobles have selected nine of their number as MPs, and a further 15 cabinet members are appointed by the king, George Tupou V.

It is the first poll since severe rioting two years ago that left much of the capital in ruins.

The Kingdom of Tonga describes itself as the land where time begins, or the first country to see in the sunrise of the new day.

This is one of the last virtually feudal states in the world.

The richest man is the monarch, and his family and favourites hold sway.

Half of Tongans live below the poverty line. Tongan hereditary nobles are entitled to describe commoners, as "kainanga oe fonua" or dirt eaters.

There is slow progress towards a situation where the Tongan people decide who runs their government.

The king says the constitution will not change until 2010 at the earliest.

In the last years of his reign, the previous king had appointed a commoner as prime minister for the first time.

Pro-democracy campaigners have been pushing to get a majority of MPs directly elected by the people.

Past violence

In November 2006 there was frustration when it appeared parliament would close before acting on these demands.

Tension spilled over in the streets of the capital, Nuku'alofa.

Gangs targeted businesses run by ethnic Chinese people. Much of the town centre was burnt to the ground and eight people were killed.

Australian and New Zealand soldiers flew in to help restore order.

Most of the current popularly-elected MPs have been charged with sedition, apparently for instigating the violence. But they are still allowed to stand as candidates.

A state of emergency was imposed after the 2006 riots and is still in place.

Country profile: Tonga
23 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Tonga
23 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Tonga's king vows more democracy
23 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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