By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia
The conservative coalition Avenir en Confiance (The future with confidence) has won a significant victory in New Caledonia’s elections, increasing its role in the Southern Province and handing out a stinging defeat to the Calédonie ensemble party, which had dominated local politics in recent years.
On provisional results from the French High Commission, to be confirmed by the electoral commission in coming days, the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) gained an extra seat in New Caledonia’s Congress, which will now have 28 loyalist politicians and 26 supporters of independence.
The independence movement retained control of two of three provincial assemblies, in the North and Loyalty Islands, in contrast to turmoil in the South.
The big loser of the elections was Calédonie ensemble (CE - Caledonia Together), led by Philippe Gomès. CE was the largest party in the previous Congress, elected in 2014. In a significant blow, however, its representation in the 2019 Congress will be halved from 15 to 7 seats.
The outgoing government led by President Philippe Germain – a member of CE – was widely criticised for its economic and tax agenda, at a time the economy is slowing and many investors are wary of further political change. Non-Kanak voters are also reacting to the strong showing by the independence movement in last November’s referendum on self-determination, with the FLNKS gaining 43.3 per cent in favour of independence.
CE’s Philippe Gomès expressed his concern that last year’s referendum had “radicalised” non-Kanak voters: “In this context of fear, it’s clear that a message that’s very anti-independence and hostile to the Kanak world is much louder than a message of respect.”
CE lost seats in the north and south, leaving the Avenir en Confiance coalition as the dominant force in the large Southern Province Assembly and strongly represented in the national Congress. This coalition links three conservative parties that are committed to staying in the French Republic: Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC), led by Sonia Backès; Rassemblement-Les Républicains (R-LR), led by Thierry Santa; and the Mouvement populaire calédonien (MPC) under Gil Brial.
Conservative victory in the South
At their election night party in the wealthy beachside suburb of Baie de Citrons, Avenir supporters waved the French flag and sang the national anthem of France, the Marseillaise.
Sonia Backès said: “Avenir en Confiance has carried a majority in the Southern Province, which hasn’t happened since 1999, and this is the best result to succeed in changing things.”
Avenir won 40.59 per cent of the vote in the Southern Province, more than doubling CE’s score of 18.49 per cent. The FLNKS gained 15.88 per cent, with a new party Eveil océanien at 8.56 per cent. Seven other lists running in the south did not reach the required 5 per cent of registered voters to be allocated a seat.
Despite Avenir’s crushing of its rival on the Right, the balance of forces in the 54-member Congress has not substantially changed. Since the signing of the Noumea Accord in May 1998, the FLNKS and other pro-independence parties have slowly increased their representation in the Congress. Over the last fifteen years, the number of anti-independence politicians in the national parliament has dropped from 36 (2004) to 31 (2009), then 29 (2014) and 28 today.
In last Sunday’s vote, FLNKS leaders were hoping to pick up two or three seats to gain a majority in the Congress and Government of New Caledonia. However, with non-compulsory voting, there was a relatively low turn-out of voters and this goal was not achieved.
These elections were also marked by the emergence of a newly formed party Eveil océanien (EO - Pacific awakening). The party draws its support from the large Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian communities living in New Caledonia, winning four seats in the Southern Province and three in the Congress.
Islands Business spoke to Eveil’s president Milakulo Tukumuli on election night, interrupted by his phone ringing with messages of congratulations from Polynesian voters, who make up nearly ten per cent of the territory’s population.
“Everyone has been sending me messages saying that we’ve won, but I’ll wait for the official results,” Tukumuli said. “I think the TV debate last Thursday had a big effect, because many New Caledonians don’t see themselves represented by the major parties. To base our electoral campaign on a communal vote was necessary, but next year we may open up to others. New Caledonians have gone beyond Yes or No [to independence] – now they can think for themselves.”
Despite their strong showing, Avenir does not have a simple majority in the Congress, and must build alliances with other forces. CE is in a difficult position with just seven seats – it has different economic agendas to Avenir’s more neo-liberal policies, but forging an alliance with the independence movement may further alienate voters opposed to a break with France.
A more dominant role in the Southern Provincial Assembly will provide LRC’s Sonia Backes and Rassemblement’s Thierry Santa a platform, but they still face the dilemma that the independence movement is well placed to continue towards a second referendum on self-determination next year.
Status quo in the Northern Province
The independence movement has maintained its strong hold on the two rural provinces, in the north of the main island Grande Terre and in the outlying Loyalty Islands.
Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance (UNI), which unites Palika, UPM and other non-party supporters, held off a challenge from the UC-FLNKS Nord electoral list headed by UC President Daniel Goa, who also serves as spokesperson for the FLNKS.
Of the six lists running in the Northern Province, three won seats in the provincial assembly: UNI Nord won 38.5 per cent of the vote, followed by UC-FLNKS with 35.96 per cent and ‘Agissons pour le Nord’ (the Avenir list) with 12.18 per cent. The Parti Travailliste (PT), which called for non-participation in last year’s referendum, did not reach the level necessary to be allocated a seat.
With UNI heading the vote, Provincial president Paul Neaoutyine is likely to be re-elected to a fifth term of office when the Assembly meets. Daniel Goa told reporters: “We respect that the voters have chosen to support the current administration again, but we UC members will continue to work with UNI through the FLNKS.”
At the last local elections in 2014, the Right won four of 22 seats in the Northern Assembly. This year, the Avenir list ‘Agissons pour le Nord’ list ended up with three seats. CE’s Gerard Poadja, who represents New Caledonia in the French Senate in Paris, led the ‘Une province pour tous’ list in the North. But in line with the disaster in the south, Poadja was unable to win over non-Kanak voters in the north, and CE came away without any seats.
Loyalty Islands Province
In the Loyalty Islands Province, candidates sought support for the outlying islands of Ouvea, Lifou, Tiga and Mare, which lack the Southern Province’s infrastructure and the economic dynamism of the north. Locals were interested in issues of inter-island transport, sustainable agriculture, jobs for the young – and of independence for their country.
With its overwhelmingly indigenous population, the Loyalty Islands Province remained a bastion of support for independence, with anti-independence parties again failing to win a seat in the islands Assembly.
Before the vote, long-serving provincial President Neko Hnepeune announced he would step down from leadership of the province and Jacques Lalié took first position on the UC-FLNKS list. This group was challenged by Palika Iles under Charles Washetine; PT, led by unionist turned businessman Louis Kotra Uregei; Dynamique Autochtone / LKS, led by Oymara Naiselline and Basil Citre; Luther Voundjo’s Mouvement néo-indépendantiste et souverainiste (MNIS) or Davy Bolo’s ‘Unitaire Kanaky génération’.
After a gap of ten years, anti-independence leader Simon Loueckhote returned to the province to head the Avenir alliance ‘Avec nous’, while Jean-Eric Naxue led CE’s ‘Nouvelle vision des Iles’. However, as in the north, the failure of the anti-independence forces to unite in a single list damaged their chances, and they ended up without any seats in the islands’ assembly.
Palika made a strong showing across the province, reducing the previous majority held by the Hnepeune administration. The final result was UC – FLNKS with 37.09% of votes; Palika Iles with 21.24 per cent; Parti Travailliste with 14.34 per cent and Dynamique autochtone 10.98 per cent. For the Congress, this should translate to UC (3), Palika (2), PT (1) and DA (1).
Congress shifts and government changes
The 28 incoming members of the Congress from conservative anti-independence groupings include: the Avenir en Confiance coalition with 18 seats (15 from the south and 3 from the north); CE with 7 seats (all from the south); and Eveil océanien with 3 (all from the south).
The 26 pro-independence members – an increase of one from 2014 – come from: UC-FLNKS (9 from north and islands); FLNKS Sud (6); UNI Nord et Iles (9); PT (1); and Dynamique Autochtone (1).
Members of the newly elected assemblies meet for the first time next Friday, 17 May, to elect a provincial president and key members of the administration. A week later, a proportion of the Assembly members (15 from the north, 7 from the islands and 32 from the south) gather in Noumea as the 54-member Congress of New Caledonia. This body must elect its Speaker and choose between 5-11 of its members to serve as the Government of New Caledonia.
In early June, the government ministers meet and, by majority vote, chose a President and Vice-President from amongst their ranks. Outgoing President of New Caledonia Philippe Germain announced before the vote that he will take a “step back” from politics, so there will be a stiff fight over the presidency.
With a third of the incoming Congress able to call for another referendum on self-determination, likely to be held in late 2020, the stage is set for ongoing debate over the future of the French Pacific dependency.