Tongans cast ballots in 'historic election'

Map of Tonga

Voters in Tonga have cast ballots for their first popularly-elected parliament as part of a democratic transition away from the monarchy.

King George Tupou V called the election "the greatest and most historic day for our kingdom".

Tonga's 42,000 voters are choosing 17 of the 26 members of parliament, with the remaining nine reserved for members of the kingdom's nobility.

Electoral officials said provisional results were expected late on Thursday.

Previously the king has chosen the majority of politicians, the entire cabinet and the prime minister.

This time, the elected parliamentarians will vote for a prime minister.

'Historic' day

The king made an address to the nation before polls opened.

"You will choose your representative to the parliament and thus the first elected government in our country's long history," he said.

Voting in the nobles' segment of the poll was completed earlier in the day, with nine nobles chosen from 33 families.

Tonga suffers high unemployment and a quarter of its population live below the poverty line.

Riots four years ago sprang out of protests that the process of democratic reform was moving too slowly.

Gangs targeted businesses run by ethnic Chinese people. Much of the town centre was burned to the ground and eight people were killed.

Analysts said it was not yet clear what concrete changes the political shift would bring.

"It's certainly a turning point in history in many respects," said Pacific historian Ian Campbell, a visiting research professor at Japan's Kagoshima University, told AFP.

"Whether it results in different policies is very difficult to tell."

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