Kingdom of Tonga holds first popular vote

Tonga`s 42,000 voters were to elect 17 of the 26 members of Parliament.

Nuku`alofa: The Pacific archipelago of Tonga ended 165 years of monarchy on Thursday with a historic first vote for a popularly elected Parliament.

The election was "the greatest and most historic day for our kingdom”, King George Tupou V said in an address to the nation before the polls opening.

"You will choose your representative to the Parliament and thus the first elected government in our country`s long history."

Officials said voting was "steady" with a "happy mood" around the polling stations before voting ended at 4:00 pm (0300 GMT), with provisional results expected late Thursday.

Tonga`s 42,000 voters were to elect 17 of the 26 members of Parliament, with the remaining nine reserved for the kingdom`s nobility.

When the make up of the new Parliament is known, the newly elected representatives will elect a prime minister, a process that could take days.

Previously, the Parliament was dominated by politicians selected by the monarch, who also picked the prime minister and cabinet.

A delegation of 14 observers from Australia and New Zealand are in Tonga to observe the election.

The swing towards democracy follows riots in the capital, Nuku`alofa, four years ago, which claimed eight lives and destroyed much of the business centre as people protested against the slow pace of political reform.

The king said the world had undergone many changes since the 170-island archipelago was united under a monarchy in 1845.

"It is an opportune time, therefore, to change the way we are ruled... I shall grant my executive powers to the cabinet and the Parliament and in future the sovereign shall act only on the advice of his prime minister."

Bureau Report