'Akilisi Pōhiva: 'The People's Prime Minister' and his quest for democratic reform

Tonga's Prime Minister and lifelong pro-democracy campaigner 'Akilisi Pōhiva has passed away, in Auckland, aged 78. 

Pōhiva, who had been unwell for many years, was medically evacuated to Auckland on Wednesday, suffering from pneumonia. 

He was a former teacher, newspaper editor, MP, and Prime Minister.

Reverend Tevita Finau, from the New Zealand Methodist Church, told Newshub he will be remembered as a leader who was "passionate about accountability and transparency and stood up for justice."

Best known as a staunch pro-democracy battler, he was the first commoner to be elected Tonga's Prime Minister in 2014, rather than being appointed by the King. 

A longtime critic of the Monarchy, Tonga's King Tupou the 6th dissolved Parliament in 2017, amid claims from opponents Pōhiva was trying to strip the King of power. 

Pōhiva described it at the time as "a coup". 

It was a coup, but it failed," Pōhiva said in 2017. 

And fail it did. A few months later, Pōhiva was returned to power in a landslide victory at the general election. 

"I just want to acknowledge the passing of the Prime Minister of Tonga and acknowledge the close relationship that NZ and Tonga share," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Pōhiva's last official overseas engagement was at last month's Pacific Island Forum.

"As a fellow Tongan I really feel for him and his family at this time," Tongan Advisory Council chairman Melino Maka said. "He made history in the Tongan political arena."

However Maka believes he didn't quite achieve all he wanted, as "he lacked the political skills to finish" his business and implement the widespread democratic change he desired, like removing the ability of the Monarchy to appoint judges and diplomats. 

Mr Maka says there's now a lot of uncertainty about which direction Tonga's political movement will take. 

"The challenge now is who is going to replace him. He leaves a huge hole in the Tongan Democratic Party," he said.  

His final moments were not in the kingdom, but surrounded by family in Auckland. 

Pōhiva had suffered poor health for many years and made multiple trips to Auckland Hospital for specialist treatment.

First elected to Parliament in 1987, Pōhiva was the longest-serving People's Representative. 

As an opposition MP, he was a bold, fierce and fearless critic of the former Prime Minister Fred Sevele, especially in the wake of the sinking of the ferry, the Princess Ashika.

Tonga's Prime Minister died in Auckland on Thursday.
Tonga's Prime Minister died in Auckland on Thursday. Photo credit: Getty

Newshub's pacific affairs correspondent Michael Morrah

He struck me as a very thoughtful, generous individual, who was always relatively willing to do interviews. He lived in a small, humble home on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa, always came across as a man of the people who lived a simple life and didn't care much for the perks of office.  

Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika has assumed leadership at this time but it's not certain who will take over formally, or how that will happen.

I think Pōhiva's death has created a real power vacuum for Tonga. There's really no one else with the same political ideals. Pōhiva struggled to implement some of the changes he wanted recently, as many who surrounded him had different agendas and some didn't share his political aspirations. 

Pōhiva - a pioneer of people's rights whose legacy will live on.


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