For much of the 19th and all of the 20th century, the 12 members of the Tongan cabinet, including the governors of Ha'apai and Vava'u, were appointed for life by the king. They sat in the 30-seat Legislative Assembly or Parliament, along with nine members representing the 33 Nobles of the Realm, and another nine members elected every three years by Tonga's 100,000 commoners. This undemocratic system began to change in early 2005 when two of the nine commoner members and two of the noble members were appointed to cabinet by the king. In early 2006 one of the commoner cabinet ministers, Fred Sevele, was appointed prime minister.
In mid-2005 a number of unprecedented mass demonstrations occurred in Nuku'alofa over pay inequalities, high electricity rates, and the lack of democracy. A 44-day strike by public employees that year almost turned violent. Meanwhile, a national committee on political reform held hearings throughout 2006. The old autocrat King Tupou IV passed away in September 2006 at the age of 88, and his eldest son, Crown Prince Tupouto'a, became Siaosi (George) Tupou V and assumed the throne. Still a bachelor at 58 years of age, Tupou V announced plans to divest his personal business empire in electricity generation, telecommunications, domestic air service, and brewing.
With expectations of democratic reform riding high, Tupou V let it be known that he thought change was unnecessary. Prime Minister Sevele, a close personal friend of Tupou V, also seemed to be stalling on reform. The simmering popular resentment over royal privilege and popular hardship exploded on Thursday, November 16, 2006, and central Nuku'alofa was set ablaze by disaffected youths from nearby villages. Businesses owned by the new king and his cronies, plus those run by recently arrived Chinese seen as close to the royal family, were specifically targeted. A number of looters died in the fires. The government declared a state of emergency and 700 people were charged with arson or theft. Australia and New Zealand sent in troops to restore order and prop up the royalist regime.
The royalist government used the rioting as a pretext for a crackdown on the pro-democracy side. Five commoner members of parliament were charged with sedition, an opposition newspaper was raided by troops, and an independent TV station was kept off the air. The state of emergency remained in place well into 2010 with official approval required for meetings. Tupou V was crowned king at an elaborate coronation ceremony in August 2008. Yet with pressure for change mounting both inside and outside Tonga, the king finally consented to reforms pro-democratic leaders like 'Akilisi Pohiva had been demanding for many years. In April 2010 the old Tongan Parliament voted to increase the number of popularly-elected seats from nine to 17, while retaining the nine seats chosen by the nobles. The royal seats were abolished. The election of November 2010 implemented these reforms and Tonga became a functioning democracy at last with a prime minister elected by parliament. For more information on various ongoing scams and scandals involving Tongan royalty and politicians, visit the website of journalist Michael Field.
In March 2012 Tupou V died in a Hong Kong hospital. Tongan tradition requires a year of mourning before his younger brother, Crown Prince Lavaka, can be crowned king.