I'll admit that I have not been a fan of Tonga's royals. I've found it difficult to understand, let alone stomach, the utter - bordering on worshipful - devotion displayed by some Tongans towards members of their royal family.

All that bowing and scraping, I complain to my Tongan husband. Why do modern, self-respecting Tongans put up with it? To which he replies that, actually, we Samoans are just as bad when it comes to our high chiefs.

I disagree, of course, but then I grew up in irreverent, egalitarian New Zealand, which isn't impressed by that kind of nonsense. (Although you'd never know it the way some of us seem to go gaga over the prospect of a royal wedding, or resist so fiercely any attempt to make an honest republic out of us.)

It's true that in recent times, Tonga and its royals have provided rich pickings for those of us in the news media. A series of scandals, including the selling of passports to the Chinese, a "court jester" making off with millions of pa'anga and attacks on freedom of the press, have made for easy sport.

Add to that the pro-democracy riots of November 2006 and the entirely avoidable deaths caused by the sinking of the Ashika ferry in 2009, and the impression of Tonga as a Pacific backwater held back by an anachronistic monarchy wielding absolute power - and of the royals themselves as greedy and out of touch with the needs of ordinary Tongans - has seemed to be entrenched.

But Tonga and its monarch deserve applause this week. For when Tongans go to the polls on Thursday, they will be taking a significant step in what has been a long, slow march to democracy.

For the first time ever, Tongans will be able to elect the majority of their MPs, and those MPs will get to choose their Prime Minister, who will in turn get to choose his or her Cabinet.

It may not be our version of democratic nirvana, but it is a major achievement. And it has been led, against all expectations, by the King himself, George Tupou V.

As democratic transitions go, this one has been remarkably peaceful and civil - notwithstanding the riots of November 16, 2006, in which eight people died (the Government claims it was cynically orchestrated by pro-democracy leaders, while the pro-democracy movement insists it was the result of anger over the Government's apparent failure to move quickly enough on democracy).

And whether the King was simply surrendering to the inevitable, or whether democratic government was indeed "the culmination of everything I have worked for", as he told Australia's ABC radio recently, the fact is that constitutional reform would not have happened as quickly or with as little turbulence without his support.

It was King George who persuaded his father back in 2004 that the Prime Minister, rather than the King, should select the Cabinet.

And although many doubted his sincerity when a Government release declared his apparent conviction "that the monarchy is an instrument of change, not an obstacle to it", so far he has been true to his words.

Tonga's Solicitor General, Aminiasi Kefu, when he was in Auckland this year to explain the constitutional changes, was at pains to point out that the new system isn't perfect or set in stone. It is a start, he said, which Tonga can build on.

Many Tongans see this week's elections as the fulfillment of a process that began some 171 years ago with King George's remarkable ancestor, George Tupou I, Tonga's first king.

It's hard not to admire the visionary and enlightened Taufa'ahau Tupou I (he called himself George after the British monarch George III).

A renowned warrior and shrewd politician of "vigorous intellect", he united Tonga in the 19th century, ending more than half a century of warfare between rival chiefs, and, by "a combination of theological argument and armed threat", according to one historian, converted all of Tonga to Christianity.

He also promulgated laws abolishing serfdom and weakening the power of the chiefs; introduced compulsory, free education long before New Zealand did; ensured that Tonga was the only Pacific nation not to be colonised by the superpowers, and created a unique land-tenure system to guard against foreign ownership and ensure that every Tongan male would get a plot of land on coming of age.

The latter, it's said, was intended to prevent the effects of colonisation already evident in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii - and ensure Tongans would never become beggars in their own country.

His crowning achievement was Tonga's 1875 constitution, one of the world's oldest living, which guaranteed freedom of expression and religious worship and established a system of government modelled along British lines.

Democracy has come at last - but for Tonga, it's been more a matter of evolution than revolution.

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com