Tongans will head to the polls today for their national election, with a record of 16 female candidates hoping to win a seat in parliament.
Voting will start at 9am local time when 169 polling stations open across the country.
It is only the second election the country has held since 2010 when voters were given the right to elect a majority of Legislative Assembly members.
A record number of women have also registered to vote in the poll. However, so far only four women have managed to get elected in Tonga since 1951.
A woman votes in the 2010 Tongan election.
Women and Children Crisis Centre Director, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, said the odds were stacked against the female candidates.
“It’s going to be a really challenging hurdle… for all the women who have courageously put their hand up to run in this year’s elections,” she said.
Ms Guttenbeil-Likiliki said women in Tonga were often swayed by their husbands or partners when it came to decision making.
She said research showed more than 80 per cent of women in intimate partner relationships had to get the permission of a partner or husband before accessing health services.
“We’re struggling to get more women into parliament because of that strong belief that parliament is where men go and make decisions”, Women and Children Crisis Centre, Director, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki.
“That speaks volumes as to how actually women would vote on the day,” she said.
A 2009 national study on domestic violence against women found a staggering 79 per cent of Tongan women had been the victims of sexual or physical violence.
“It’s quite a sad picture in the Pacific,” she said.
“Violence against women is unacceptably high in the Pacific, Tonga included, and women’s economic opportunities remain extremely limited in the Pacific.
“This is why we’re struggling to get more women into parliament because of that strong belief that parliament is not a house for women, instead it’s where men go in and make decisions.”
Ms Guttenbeil-Likiliki said the system needs to change.
“It always comes back to the pattern of voting and the behaviour of voters,” she said.
“It’s still very personalised in Tonga. Once we can move away from personalised votes into looking at what is the bigger picture, what is the vision, what is the mission, what are the policies?
“We need to go to a formalised party system. Once we do all that we can start seeing more women get into parliament.”
Strong voter turnout expected
Tonga’s Electoral Commission chairman, Barrie Sweetman, said more than 51,000 Tongans had registered to have their say in shaping the country’s next parliament.
“There’s a lot of excitement, of course, always leading up to the election with the candidates having their parades and festivities,” he said.
An average of six candidates are standing in each constituency and only 17 can be elected as the people’s representatives in parliament.
Another nine seats are voted on by the country’s nobility, to make a total of 26 seats in the parliament.
The Democratic Party is the only single party vying for all seats.
Mr Sweetman said he expected a close contest in many of the seats.
Many Tongans will also be voting for the first time.
Mr Sweetman said an education program has been in place over the last 12 months.
“I would say that the public is well educated now in what they have to do and how they go about voting,” he said.
“We’d just like them to turn up. Last time, in 2010, we had about a 91.5 per cent turnout. If we could beat that I’d be delighted.”