For most of the 20th century Tonga was quiet, inward-looking, and somewhat isolated from developments elsewhere in the world. Tonga's complex social structure is essentially broken into three tiers: the king, the nobles, and the commoners. Between the nobles and commoners are Matapule, sometimes called "talking chiefs," who are associated with the king or a noble and who may or may not hold estates.
Obligations and responsibilities are reciprocal, and although the nobility are able to extract favors from people living on their estates, they likewise must extend favors to their people. Status and rank play a powerful role in personal relationships, even within families.
Tongans are beginning to confront the problem of how to preserve their cultural identity and traditions in the wake of the increasing impact of Western technology and culture. Migration and the gradual monetization of the economy have led to the breakdown of the traditional extended family. Some of the poor, once supported by the extended family, are now being left without visible means of support.
Educational opportunities for young commoners have advanced, and their increasing political awareness has stimulated some dissent against the nobility system. In addition, the rapidly increasing population is already too great to provide the constitutionally mandated 8.25 acre (33,000 m²) api for each male at age 16.
In mid-1982, population density was 134 persons per square kilometer. Because of these factors, there is considerable pressure to move to the Kingdom's only urban center.
In the March 2002 election, seven of nine popularly elected representatives were chosen under the pro-democratic banner with the remaining two representing "traditionalist" values. The nine nobles and all the cabinet ministers that sit in the Legislative Assembly generally support the government.
Tonga does not rate as an "electoral democracy" under the criteria of Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2006 report. This is likely because while elections exist, they can only elect nine of 30 Legislative Assembly seats, the remainder being selected either by the nobility or the government; as such the people have a voice in but no control over the government.
In 2003, the Taimi 'o Tonga (Tongan Times), a newspaper published in New Zealand in the Tongan language that had been critical of the government was prohibited from distribution in Tonga due to government objections to its political content. After the newspaper obtained two court orders, it was again distributed freely.
A Media Operators Bill and constitutional amendment, intended to restrict media freedom in Tonga, was hotly debated in 2003. The legislation allowed the government to exert control over coverage of "cultural" and "moral" issues, ban publications it deemed offensive, and ban foreign ownership of the media.
In October 2003, thousands of Tongans marched peacefully through the streets of the capital city Nukuʻalofa in an unprecedented demonstration against the government's plans to limit media freedom. Despite the protests, the Media Operators Bill and constitutional amendment passed the Legislature and as of December 2003 needed only the King's signature to become law.
By February 2004, the amendment was passed and licensure of news media was required. Those papers denied licenses under the new act included the Taimi 'o Tonga (Tongan Times), the Kele'a and the Matangi Tonga, while those permitted licenses were uniformly church based or pro-government.
Further opposition to government action included calls by the Tu'i Pelehake (a prince, nephew of the King and elected member of parliament) for Australia and other nations to pressure the Tongan government to democratize the electoral system, and a legal writ calling for a judicial investigation of the bill. The latter was supported by some 160 people, including 7 of the 9 elected "People's Representatives".
In 2005 the government spent several weeks negotiating with striking civil service workers before reaching a settlement. A constitutional commission met in 2005-2006 to study proposals to update the constitution. A copy of the commission's report was presented to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, shortly before his death in September 2006 and is currently under study by the present king, George Tupou V, and members of parliament.
The Tongan Speaker of the House was found to be guilty of bribery.
Prime Minister Prince Lavaka Ata 'Ulukalala resigned suddenly on 11 February 2006, and also gave up his other cabinet portfolios. He was replaced by the elected Minister of Labour, Dr. Feleti Sevele.
The public expected democratic changes from the new monarch. On November 16, 2006, rioting broke out in the capital city of Nukuʻalofa when it seemed that the parliament would adjourn for the year without having made any advances in increasing democracy in government. Government buildings, offices, and shops were looted and burned.
Eight people died in the riots. The government agreed that elections would be held in 2008 in which a majority of the parliament would be elected by popular vote.
A state of emergency was declared on November 17, with emergency laws giving security forces the right to stop and search people without a warrant.
On 29 May 2008, in the speech from the throne at the opening of Parliament, Princess Regent, Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita announced that the government would introduce a political reform bill by June 2008, and that the current term of Parliament would be the last one under the current constitution.
In July 2008, three days before his coronation, King George Tupou V announced that he would relinquish most of his power and be guided by his Prime Minister's recommendations on most matters.
In November 2009, a constitutional review panel recommended a ceremonial monarchy stripped of real political power and to invest political power in a completely elected Legislative Assembly which, up to this point was largely hereditary due to the fact that most of the seats where designated for the nobles.
Its executive includes the prime minister and the cabinet, which becomes the Privy Council when presided over by the monarch. In intervals between legislative sessions, the Privy Council makes ordinances, which become law if confirmed by the legislature. The monarch is hereditary, the prime minister and deputy prime minister are appointed for life by the monarch, the Cabinet is appointed by the monarch.
The Legislative Assembly is composed of the representatives of the Nobles, the representatives of the people and the members of Cabinet. This composition is established by Article 59 of the Constitution as amended by the " Constitution of Tonga amendment Act 2010 " Article 51 of the same Act allows the PM to nominate and the King to appoint up to 4 extra cabinet members from outside the Assembly.
The current composition is:
17 people's Reps
2 extra members from outside the assembly
Political parties and elections
The electoral system was changed in April 2010, with 17 of 26 representatives now directly elected.