Independence movement wins majority in New Caledonia government

In a major transformation, the incoming government of New Caledonia will be led by the first pro-independence leader in nearly forty years. Members of the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) won six of eleven positions in the multi-party government, during a secret ballot in New Caledonia’s 54-member Congress.

The ballot on Wednesday afternoon came after the collapse of the New Caledonia government two weeks ago. On 2 February, the presidency of Thierry Santa was cut short after the resignation of the five FLNKS members. Any minister who resigns must be replaced by a member of the same parliamentary group. If no successor is nominated, the government loses office and Congress must choose new members for the executive. These government ministers in turn elect a new President and Vice President, who then allocate portfolios.

For Wednesday’s vote, four parliamentary groups presented competing electoral lists to win a seat in the government: the conservative Avenir en Confiance coalition; another anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble; and the two independence groups, UNI and UC-FLNKS, supported by the small Wallisian party Eveil océanien (EO – Pacific awakening).

Three members of the incoming government come from the joint ticket “UC-FLNKS and Nationalists and Eveil océanien”, led by Samuel Hnepeune, with another three from the UNI list, led by Louis Mapou. The two groups must now negotiate to decide who will take the presidency.

Hnepeune, originally from Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, is president and Chief Executive Officer of New Caledonia’s domestic airline Air Calédonie. Along with Hnepeune, the other two elected members from the UC-FLNKS-EO list are former Vice President Gilbert Tyuienon and UC member Mickael Forrest, who co-ordinates the FLNKS external relations office.

Mapou is a leading member of the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika) from the Southern Province, who heads the Union nationale pour l’indépendance (UNI) parliamentary group in Congress. Mapou is joined in the new government by Adolphe Digoué, a former Mayor of Yate in the Southern Province and Yannick Slamet, a UNI member from the Northern provincial assembly.

On the Right, the Avenir en Confiance coalition has re-elected four members of the outgoing Santa government. These include Thierry Santa from the Rassemblement-Les Républicains party, together with Christopher Gyges of Les Républicains calédoniens, Isabelle Champmoreau (the only woman in the new government) and Yoann Lecourieux.

The anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble, which dominated politics for a decade between 2009 and 2019, gained the last of the eleven seats. Their representative is Joseph Manauté, the director of a national park in the Southern province, who previously served as an advisor in conservative governments.

Old and new faces in government

Under the Noumea Accord – a 1998 agreement between the French State and supporters and opponents of independence – New Caledonia is governed by a collegial, multi-party government. The previous government led by outgoing President Thierry Santa, elected in 2019, was split between five opponents of independence and five supporters, with the eleventh member coming from Eveil océanien.

With six FLNKS members and five anti-independence members in the new government, leadership of the executive will shift to the independence movement for the first time since the late Jean-Marie Tjibaou held office in the early 1980s. Every government since the 1998 Noumea Accord has been led by an anti-independence politician, with loyalists to France holding a 7-4 or 6-5 majority. Now the tide has turned.

In an unexpected move, the eleven government members met immediately after the Congress vote to choose a new President and Vice President from amongst their ranks. However it was too soon to decide, and the meeting failed to forge a consensus. From 11 members, four votes went for Thierry Santa (AEC); three for Louis Mapou (UNI); three for Samuel Hnepeune (UC-FLNKS); one blank vote (from Calédonie ensemble).

The current government under Thierry Santa will continue in caretaker mode, until discussions can forge an agreement on the Presidency in coming days. The looming change of leadership comes at a crucial time, as the government must now finalise a 2021 budget, and forge a new consensus over the future of nickel mining and smelting, with New Caledonia holding nearly a quarter of global reserves of the strategic mineral. The incoming President will also lead negotiations with the Macron government in Paris, as the French Pacific dependency moves towards a third referendum on self-determination.

Time for payback

The key surprise from Wednesday’s Congress poll was the slippage of votes from the UC-FLNKS towards UNI (with 12 seats in Congress, UNI got 14 votes). In the secret ballot, UNI likely picked up a vote from the left-wing Parti Travailliste and another from an unknown member of the Loyalist bloc. These extra votes gave UNI three seats in the government instead of two. The UC-FLNKS-EO list also got three, rather than the four they were expecting (the fourth member on their list – Vaimu’a Muliava from Eveil océanien – missed out, after previously serving in the Santa government).

The anonymous vote from the Right for UNI served a double purpose: to exacerbate differences between UC and UNI, and also as payback to Eveil océanien and its leader Milakulo Tukumuli.

The decision by the largest independence party Union Calédonienne to choose a businessman rather than a politician to head its list seems to have backfired. Samuel Hnepeune won the presidency of the employers’ federation MEDEF-NC in June last year, but resigned to take up his new position in the government. The choice of Hnepeune to head the UC list aimed to send a positive signal to the business community, at a time that New Caledonia’s economy has been damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cyclone Lucas and long-running uncertainty over the proposed sale of the Vale Nouvelle-Calédonie nickel smelter in the Southern Province.

The Kanak businessman, however, has few friends in the trade union confederation USTKE and the left wing Parti Travailliste, which have long battled MEDEF and the mostly anti-independence business community. Some other FLNKS members are also concerned that Hnepeune’s business background will constrain the more radical economic policy required to address long-standing inequalities in the society.

Eveil océanien (EO) was only founded in March 2019, drawing support from the Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian communities, which have historically supported anti-independence parties.

Just two months after its formation, EO contested the May 2019 elections for New Caledonia’s Congress, winning three seats in the legislature. Party leader Milakulo Tukumuli – with a PhD in mathematics – quickly saw that EO’s seats gave it the balance of power in the 54-member legislature, split 25/26/3. Through negotiation, EO leveraged its votes to win a Vice Presidency of the Southern Province and a seat in the Santa government for Vaimu’a Muliava, who backed Thierry Santa for President in 2019.

Then in July 2020, the three EO Congress members formally joined the ‘UC-FLNKS and Nationalists’ parliamentary group, giving them staff, offices and seats on Congress committees. Their votes also helped elect veteran independence politician Roch Wamytan as speaker of the Congress last year.

On his election, Wamytan spoke of a “majorité océanien” in Congress, an “islander majority” rather than a pro-independence alliance, drawn together by cultural bonds and a recognition that New Caledonia’s future lies in building ties to neighbouring island states. There’s common ground amongst islanders over improved access to housing, welfare and social services. Indigenous Kanak and many Polynesians also share an anger and antipathy to the racism of members of the governing Avenir en Confiance coalition in the Southern province, led by Sonia Backes of Les Républicains calédoniens.

For this week’s vote for the government, EO ran a joint list with UC-FLNKS. Before the vote, Milakulo Tukumuli said the temporary alliance with the independence movement “was the only intelligent option for us. We do not share the same vision as Avenir en Confiance on the future of the Vale smelter or dealing with the impasse over the budget.”

In an apparent act of payback, the one conservative vote switched to UNI has left EO without its expected seat in the government. Politics is tough in the Pacific!

Difficult times ahead

In two referendums on self-determination in 2018 and 2020, New Caledonians have narrowly decided to remain within the French Republic. However each vote has seen increased support for independence and next April, the Congress can decide whether to proceed to a third referendum by 2022.

The problems in the outgoing Santa administration were evident soon after the increased vote for independence in the October 2020 referendum on self-determination. The poll was followed by months of wrangling between supporters and opponents of independence in the executive, which paralysed many decisions.

Crucially, the Santa government failed to manage the dispute over the proposed sale of Vale Nouvelle-Calédonie, the local subsidiary of the Brazilian mining corporation. Since 2010, Vale has managed the Goro nickel smelter in New Caledonia’s Southern province, but is selling its assets after years of losses and conflict with indigenous Kanak communities.

After widespread protests and rioting last year, the collapse of the Santa government has delayed the proposed sale to a new consortium led by the Swiss financier Trafigura – a sale determinedly opposed by the independence movement and Kanak customary leaders.

Rioting and roadblocks in late 2020 and ongoing vandalism at the Vale site have contributed to a polarisation of opinion amongst many New Caledonians. Some draw anxious parallels to the period leading to the Les évènements, the armed clashes that wracked New Caledonia between 1984-88.

Learning from history

The current situation has some parallels with the last time that a government in New Caledonia was led by an independence politician.

The 1979 elections for New Caledonia’s Territorial Assembly resulted in 15 seats for the anti-independence Rassemblement party (RPCR), 14 for the Front Indépendantiste (FI) and seven for the centrist Fédération pour une nouvelle société calédonienne (FNSC).

In mid-1982, after France announced the Dijoud plan for economic and land reform, the RPCR-led government collapsed. From June 1982 until November 1984, the FI and FNSC allied in a short-lived “government for reform and development.” This coalition was led by the charismatic Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, proposing major economic, social and cultural reforms. The settler community reacted in anger, leading to the storming of the Territorial Assembly by an extreme Right-wing mob and death threats against Tjibaou and FNSC members.

In 1983, at the Nainville-les-Roches roundtable in France, Kanak leaders called for recognition of indigenous sovereignty and the right to self-determination. But they also held out their hand, seeking to build a “common destiny” with “the victims of history” – the descendants of the European convicts and settlers, Asian indentured labourers and Wallisian migrants who had made New Caledonia their home.

In May 1984, the French State offered a new autonomy statute for New Caledonia, but it was too little, too late. In September, the FI transformed into the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, most Kanak voters boycotted the November 1984 elections and on 1 December, Tjibaou declared the Provisional Government of Kanaky. New Caledonia entered four years of armed conflict.

Today, for the first time in nearly forty years, there is again a possibility of a new alliance, and an “islander majority” in a Government of New Caledonia, headed by a Kanak leader. In response, will the French State seize the moment, fulfilling its commitment to the decolonisation process established by the Noumea Accord, and work with the incoming government to develop a new political status? Or – once again – will France simply propose a neo-colonial deal, offering too little, too late? Time is short, if New Caledonians are to avoid another generation of conflict.

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