Despite limited powers, constitutional monarchies such as in Britain, where a new sovereign is to be crowned on May 6, can sway the hearts and minds of people in democratic nations. Japan is one royal example, writes Annaka Susumu of Waseda University and Kato Gento of Nazarbayev University. In a look at the Kingdom of Tonga, Mele Tupou Vaitohi of Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington explains how the Pacific’s last remaining monarchy has taken a unique approach to balancing executive powers between the sovereign and the parliament.
The people’s representative hails the monarch: Then Japanese prime minister Kaifu Toshiki greets newly enthroned Emperor Akihito (now the Emperor Emeritus) on November 12, 1990 (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)
On a 2019 autumn morning, heavy with rain, Emperor Naruhito announced his enthronement to the mythical sun goddess, Amaterasu, in the Japanese imperial palace grounds. Later, he stood in the palace’s most prestigious space, the Matsu-no-ma, for his ascension to the Chrysanthemum throne.
Dignitaries and royals from around the world travelled to witness the installation of the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy. Among them was Britain’s Prince Charles, now King Charles III, having succeeded his mother Queen Elizabeth II, when she died on September 8, 2022, after over 70 years on the throne. Charles is to be crowned on May 6, touching off a three-day celebration in the United Kingdom. Attending the ceremony as representative of the Japanese monarchy will be Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor’s brother.
Japan and the United Kingdom adopt a constitutional monarchy system of government where the sovereigns are ceremonial leaders. In a democratically elected government, the power lies within the Constitution and monarchies in these systems survive as symbolic figures to unify their people. Yet, even though constitutional monarchs do not have formal political powers in a democracy, research has found they can influence public opinion through their popularity.
The emperor of Japan was a powerful political and religious leader up until the newly established democratic constitution severely restricted his role to be “only symbolic and ceremonial” and “not political”, after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Since then, the emperor is strictly not allowed to express political messages – he does not even have voting rights.
But a 2018 nationally representative survey found more than 75 percent of the Japanese public still had favorable feelings and respect toward the emperor. Zero percent of respondents said they had unfavorable feelings toward the emperor and 22 percent professed to having "no feelings" towards him.
A 2020 survey of 1,527 people showed that the Japanese emperor could still influence people’s opinions on national politics. While the impact may not be big, the results of a study by researchers from Waseda University in Japan and Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan indicate his influence can cut across ideologies and influence people regardless of their political beliefs.
Freedom of expression in Japan can be framed as both left-wing (for example, the regulation of hate speech) and right-wing (such as the regulation of publicly funded anti-nationalistic exhibitions). The study asked what people thought about the regulation of public expression in two contrasting contexts. In one – their thoughts on regulating public hate speech toward foreigners – left-leaning respondents were more supportive. In the other, about regulating public art exhibitions that negatively portray Japanese culture and history, right-wingers were usually the more accepting.
Researchers randomly asked what they thought about the increasing intensity of speech or behavior that ethnically or racially discriminate against foreigners (hate speech) or art exhibitions that negatively portray Japanese culture and history at publicly managed museums and events. Once they had answered, respondents were shown a quote from a speech by Naruhito’s father, then emperor Akihito, in which he said “securing freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy and very important”. When asked the initial question again, researchers found Japanese people lowered their support for regulating expression in public spaces, in line with the views of the former emperor.
The implication of the evidence is still open to discussion and there are not enough studies about how and when such an influence is strengthened or weakened. It may be a matter of concern that in Japan a hereditary figure, who is not chosen through election, can have political influence, or that the cross-cutting influence of the emperor implies that he can play a role in alleviating ideological divisions in democratic politics. That is a debate-worthy issue. Clearly, however, there is no doubt that monarchs can have real power and influence in democratic politics.
Tonga, with its monarchy, is a case in point.
When the current King Tupou VI was crowned in 2015 the celebrations lasted 11 days, much longer than the more modest three-day program planned for King Charles III. The Tongan celebrations began with a kava ceremony and traditional gifts from local chiefs being presented to the king. They reached their zenith with the formal crowning of the king and queen at the Royal Palace grounds and ended with a military tattoo.
The crowning of King Tupou VI was also notable for being the first under Tonga's more democratically elected government, following the most significant constitutional reforms in the country's history in 2010. Multiple attempts have been made to further amend the constitution since then, but they remain the only significant amendments to have been passed so far.
The people of Tonga pride themselves on being the last remaining monarchy in the Pacific and having never ceded their sovereignty, despite coming under Britain's protection in 1900, and joining the Commonwealth in 1970. The eminent Pacific researcher, the late Guy Powles, attributed Tonga's political stability to this "unique amalgam of Tongan chiefly authority and British forms of government and law" which was adopted and accepted by the people of Tonga since 1875.
The Tongan monarch had significant political power and authority as the head of government and the head of state under the 1875 Constitution of Tonga, up until the 2010 democratic reforms. But the monarch still has absolute discretion on appointments to the Privy Council – the members of which today serve as advisors to the monarch and also hear appeals from the Land Court but are no longer part of the executive branch of government – and the power of pardon under special clauses of the Constitution.
That the king did not lose all his executive powers during the 2010 reforms can be looked at from two points of view. Traditionalist Tongans believe people have trusted their monarch for so long that the best course of action is to continue to do so. The monarch's wide influence as the hau or traditional leader entitles him or her to exercise royal prerogatives wherever there are gaps. This means that there is no need to scrutinize any law in great detail to define terms, draw lines and seek strict interpretations. In fact, it would be considered rather disloyal to do so. Another view is that the monarch is not averse to taking on new ideas and seeking new directions and policies for the nation. Accountability will be applied by an ever-vigilant population.
The 2010 reforms represented the first major change to Tonga's political landscape since 1875 and were introduced relatively peacefully, which was seen as a great credit to the Tongan cultural values of restraint, respect and responsibility. They diluted the power of the monarch by shifting some of his executive power to the Legislative Assembly, primarily the cabinet.
Prior to the 2010 reforms, the prime minister and other members of the cabinet were appointed and dismissed by the monarch. The monarch hence had a substantial degree of control over the government: Ministers were directly responsible and accountable to the monarch and not to parliament or the people of Tonga.
But by the early 1990s, demand was growing for a more democratic government. The first official step toward reform occurred after the general election in March 2005, when King Taufa'ahau (Tupou IV, who died on September 10, 2006) appointed to cabinet two elected nobles' representatives and two elected people's representatives, one of whom was chosen to be prime minister in March 2006. He was the first commoner to hold the position.
The pressure on the government and the monarch came from public service strikes and protest marches about public service reforms and utility costs as well as political change between 2005 and 2006. In October 2006, the new King George V (who reigned until his death on 18 March 2012) publicly announced his support for political reform and volunteered to relinquish his constitutional authority.
Although George V was credited with his support for political reform, he was criticized by many for insisting on some areas of influence, particularly in the appointment of key people such as all the judiciary, the attorney-general, the lord chancellor, and the police commissioner, in addition to holding on to existing powers such as the ability to issue pardons and to appoint the commander of the armed forces and the powers relating to law-making (assent/veto) and the legislature (convoke/dismiss).
This could explain why, on November 16, 2006, riots broke out. This popular pressure eventually led to the establishment of the Constitutional and Electoral Commission in July 2008, which reported back in November 2009, proposing 82 specific recommendations and draft amendments to the Constitution and other relevant statutes.
The majority of the 52 recommendations accepted were directly related to shifting the majority of executive power from the monarch to the people's elected representatives, who are ultimately accountable to the electorate. Not only was this a political process, it also had an impact on the traditional and cultural powers of the monarch enshrined in the Constitution.
The most important power that people now possess is that for the first time their representatives make up the majority of parliamentarians, almost 70 percent. And there is now a mechanism for a vote of no confidence, which had never existed before, despite being present in most other Pacific countries. There was, however, overwhelming public support for enshrining the monarch's position as a safety measure to guard against unconstitutional actions by the government.
The king is no longer part of the executive, which precludes him from intervening directly in day-to-day conduct of the administration of ministries or government departments. The head of government is the prime minister, who is now an elected member of parliament chosen by the legislators and appointed by the king, according to their wishes.
Since 2010, Tonga has gone through many significant tests of its new dual executive system of king and parliament. Two attempts to democratize the government further through constitutional amendments have been unsuccessful, with bills passed by the Legislative Assembly in 2014 rejected by the king due to the lack of evidence that the cabinet was unanimously in their favor. It has since been resolved that the bills need consultation with the public.
Five governments have been elected, one of which was after the king dissolved parliament in 2017 and one resulted after the then prime minister died in 2019. There have been three motions for votes of no confidence – in 2012, 2017 and 2021, all unsuccessful.
Although any one of these events may have given rise to a constitutional crisis, they so far have not, showing Tonga's success at managing to weave together different principles which favor both democratization and preserving the status quo – in other words, the perfect balance between monarchy and democracy.
This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.
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Mele Tupou Vaitohi
Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington