Just six months after New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination, voters in the French Pacific dependency go to the polls again on Sunday, in elections for three provincial assemblies and the national Congress.
Candidates are in the last week of campaigning, wooing voters with policies to address the high cost of living and a lack of decent housing and health services. The outgoing government led by President Philippe Germain faces criticism for its taxation policies as well as problems facing the nickel industry – a vital source of revenue for the economy. Many families are angry about the challenge of guaranteeing local employment, as young, educated New Caledonians struggle to find jobs in the face on ongoing migration from France.
The independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) is also seeking to maintain momentum from its 2018 referendum campaign, which saw 43 per cent of voters supporting a Yes vote for independence. Not a majority, certainly, but close enough to encourage the FLNKS to push for further referendums under the 1998 Noumea Accord, in the hope of creating an independent nation. Just one third of members in the incoming Congress can call for a second referendum on independence, opening the way for another vote in 2020.
In response, there is a stiff battle between two major electoral lists opposed to independence – the Calédonie Ensemble party and the Avenir en Confiance coalition – over the best way to respond to the Kanak people’s overwhelming support for independence.
For these reasons, Sunday’s elections are important not just for domestic issues, but for New Caledonia’s future political status in the Pacific. The incoming Congress will make crucial decisions about the final years of transition under the Noumea Accord, first signed in May 1998 between the FLNKS, anti-independence parties and the French State.
Complex electoral system
New Caledonia’s local political institutions have the authority to pass laws in areas where powers have been passed from Paris to Noumea since 1999. The French State currently retains control, however, of the sovereign powers (competences régaliennes) – courts, police, currency, defence and most aspects of foreign affairs.
On Sunday 12 May, voters must choose between 25 electoral lists for the 76 members of the three provincial assemblies – in the North, South and Loyalty Islands. These assemblies in turn choose their own President and provincial administration.
A proportion of these 76 representatives then make up the 54-member Congress at national level (seven from the Islands assembly, 15 from the North and 32 from the South). The national Government of New Caledonia is drawn from members of Congress, determined proportionally by the size of parliament groups, and can have between five and 11 members.
Given the different populations of each province, it takes a varying number of votes to win a seat in Congress: 3,385 electors in the South, 3,028 in the Loyalty Islands, but only 2,672 in the North.
Voting on Sunday, which is not compulsory, will only include long-term residents of New Caledonia. This restricted electoral list for New Caledonian citizens means that 40,000 French nationals – public servants, soldiers and recent migrants - are ineligible to vote. In contrast, every French national of voting age can vote for New Caledonia’s municipal councils, the French Presidency and legislature in Paris or the looming elections to the European Parliament.
Complicated? Just wait, there’s more!
Action in the provinces
The vote on Sunday may throw up a few surprises, as an older generation of politicians are stepping aside, with electoral lists seeking to promote an image of renewal and openness.
New Caledonia’s Southern Province, with 40 seats in the assembly, has long remained a bastion of parties opposed to independence. This year however, the conservative anti-independence parties are deeply divided between Philippe Gomes’ Calédonie ensemble (CE) and the Avenir en Confiance (AenC) coalition, which includes three Right-wing parties: Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC), led by Sonia Backès; Rassemblement-Les Républicains (R-LR), led by Thierry Santa; and Mouvement populaire calédonien (MPC) under Gil Brial.
In contrast, the Northern Province and outlying Loyalty Islands Province – where the majority of population are indigenous Kanak – have been governed by pro-independence parties for the last thirty years.
In the North, Paul Neaoutyine of the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika) has led the 22-member provincial assembly since 1999. Once again, he is seeking re-election as head of the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance (UNI) electoral list. UNI will however face a strong challenge from the Union Calédonienne (UC) list led by UC President Daniel Goa, and the Parti Travailliste (PT), under Roch Doui.
In the Loyalty Islands, long-serving provincial president Neko Hnepeune has announced he will not stand again for the leadership, opening the way for former UC dissident Jacques Lalié to take top position on the ‘UC-FLNKS des Îles’ list. Louis Kotra Uregei’s Parti Travailliste (PT), with significant support in Ouvea, Lifou and Tiga has sought a loose alliance with Dynamique Autochtone / Libération Kanak Socialiste (LKS) in Mare, hoping to upset the FLNKS-aligned majority in the 14-seat provincial assembly.
The anti-independence forces have been unable to unite in one electoral list in these rural provinces. The two major Right-wing blocs will each run their own list, reducing their chances of winning seats. CE’s Gerard Poadja leads the ‘Une province pour tous’ list in the North, with Jean-Eric Naxue and CE’s ‘Nouvelle vision des Iles’ in the Islands. The AenC coalition has the ‘Agissons pour le Nord’ list in the North and ‘Avec nous’ in the Islands.
Divisions on the Right
Sonia Backès and the AenC coalition have run a fierce campaign, critical not only of the independence movement but also their rival Philippe Gomès. The veteran politician, who represents New Caledonia in the French National Assembly in Paris, will once again lead the CE ticket in the South.
CE won the largest number of seats in the 2014 Congress, but faces pressure on all fronts for this election. The CE president of the Government of New Caledonia is stepping down and the CE-led Southern Province is being investigated for the creation of ghost jobs (who serve the party rather than the provincial administration, all at taxpayers’ expense). Gomès himself has been indicted by French authorities over a potential conflict of interest between his role as deputy in the National Assembly and chair of a local energy company.
The Right has traditionally drawn support from voters of European heritage but also the large Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian communities living in New Caledonia, with Polynesians making up nearly 10 per cent of the population.
This year, however, a new party Eveil océanien has entered the competition in the South. Led by Milakulo Tukumuli, the party is gathering significant support from younger Polynesian voters, who are tired of their elders’ longstanding support for the Right. Their slogan – “No longer passengers but captains of our own destiny” – is a sign that Polynesian voters must speak with their own voice as New Caledonian citizens, as the Melanesian nation moves towards another referendum on its political status.
Who will make up the government?
Since the current political institutions were introduced after the 1998 Noumea Accord, New Caledonia has been governed by a collegial, multi-party government, including both supporters and opponents of independence. For twenty years, the anti-independence parties have maintained a majority in the 11-member government, with the President coming from the Right and the Vice-President from the FLNKS.
However outgoing President Philippe Germain of the Calédonie Ensemble party has announced that he will take a “step back” and will not continue as President. For this reason, the post-election period will see significant jousting between the two major anti-independence blocs over who will take the Presidency.
In turn, the independence coalition FLNKS and other pro-independence parties are seeking to increase their representation in Congress. After the last elections in 2014, there were 29 opponents of independence and 25 supporters of independence. The loss of just a few seats by anti-independence parties could see the election of a Congressional majority aligned with the independence movement – an unprecedented upset that would transform New Caledonian politics.
Multiplication of lists
New Caledonia’s elections are not based on single member constituencies, but use an electoral list system – the more votes that go to your list, the more seats you get. Under French law, the lists must alternate between male and female candidates, ensuring the nearly half the Congress will be women – a sharp contrast to neighbouring Melanesian nations where few women get a foothold in the national parliament.
However, to be allocated a seat, an electoral list must obtain more than five per cent of registered voters (not those actually voting). This high bar means that many smaller parties or coalitions will not be represented in the new Congress. The major parties are urging voters to look at the big picture, rather than waste their vote on single issues concerns. The smaller lists, in turn, are longing to upset the small political elite that has governed the country for decades.
In the South, there were six lists for the 2014 elections – this year, there are 11. Outside the big three political forces, they are a diverse bunch, including Alain Descombels and the Rassemblement national (the local branch of the extreme-Right party led by Marine le Pen in France) ; the left-wing Parti Travailliste (PT); the Alliance citoyenne pour la transition (ACT) led by environment activist Martine Cornaille; and at least three lists seeking support from the large Polynesian community.
At an electoral meeting in the working-class suburb of Koutio on Tuesday, Jean-Louis d’Anglebermes warned voters against the “siren-song” of smaller parties: “Only the FLNKS can lead the country to its independence and sovereignty.”
Winning a majority for independence?
Despite the race between UC and UNI, a pro-independence majority is guaranteed in the North and Loyalty Islands. But to win a majority in the Congress, the FLNKS needs to woo support from other communities in the Southern Province.
At the 2014 elections in the South, the FLNKS ran a united Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) ticket with other pro-independence parties, winning 18 per cent of the vote. This time, they are running another united FLNKS Sud ticket, again led by veteran politician Roch Wamytan. However this year, the list has excluded the left-wing Parti Travailliste, which alienated many FLNKS supporters with its call for non-participation in last year’s referendum.
PT Leader Louis Kotra Uregei has warned that the exclusion of his party from the united ticket may set back the independence cause: “For the first time, given the multiplicity of lists on the Right, the independence movement could have been majority in the Congress. To hold a Congressional majority means a majority in the Government and the independence movement would thus lead the country – with all the positive political consequences that would flow from this, on the local and international scenes.”
Despite efforts to boost the FLNKS Sud ticket, some supporters of independence will back the Parti Travailliste, which has ongoing support from the USTKE trade union confederation. Other progressive voters are being wooed by smaller lists such as the environmental coalition ACT, or the oddly named Mouvement néo-indépendantiste et souverainiste (MNIS), which seems designed to draw away voters from the FLNKS.
Last November, a majority of New Caledonians voted to stay within the French Republic. But everyone realises that the issue of independence will not go away. The division between CE and AenC is likely to cause problems with the formation of a government in June. In 2010 and 2015, FLNKS ministers had to step in to break a deadlock between the anti-independence parties, who were unable to agree on a candidate for the Presidency. This year, the FLNKS may have a tougher choice, given the AenC’s fierce opposition to the independence movement’s policies.
In coming days, candidates will make a final pitch to voters, with the Right holding separate rallies on Wednesday night and the FLNKS gathering its troops for a final campaign meeting at Ko We Kara on Thursday. Then on Sunday night, much will be revealed.