Massive referendum boycott highlights ongoing division in New Caledonia

Watching a movie to pass the time, Canala’s mayor waits for voters as independence supporters boycott the New Caledonia referendum.

Provisional figures in the New Caledonia referendum on self-determination show an overwhelming No to independence. But this result only comes from the peaceful and disciplined response to the independence movement’s call for “non-participation” in Sunday’s vote.

With 75,762 people voting No to independence, only 2,755 people voted Yes to the question “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”  The result will be confirmed later today.

The size of the Yes vote is so small because tens of thousands of independence supporters stayed at home, following the call from the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) and a broad coalition of independence parties, unions and customary leaders. Overall, turnout nearly halved compared to last year’s referendum, from nearly 85.69% in October 2020 to 43.9% in Sunday’s vote.

Before the poll, Thierry Santa, leader of the anti-independence party Rassemblement-Les Républicains told Islands Business: “Our objective – a very ambitious objective – is to maintain the same No vote that we obtained in 2020.” Despite this, the No vote fell from 81,503 in 2020 to 75,762 yesterday, despite a larger number of registered voters.

While there was strong turnout in the wealthy southern suburbs of the capital Noumea and rural bastions of anti-independence sentiment like Farino, participation fell away in other areas. Despite strong support for a No vote, turnout fell by more than 20% in areas of greater Noumea like Dumbea, Paita and Mont Dore.

Massive boycott

In contrast, the scale of the peaceful boycott was stunning in Kanak-majority areas in the Northern Province and the outlying Loyalty Islands Province.

On the island of Mare, turnout dropped from 71.9% last year to 3.69%; in the Belep islands, from 81% to 0.6%. Only 5% of voters on Ouvea and 4.8% on Lifou turned up at local town halls – polling stations in some tribes recorded not a single vote. In pro-independence areas on the east coast of the main island, there were similar drops in turnout: in the northeast town of Hienghène, only 1.5% of registered voters went to the polls – last year it was 91.4%.

In Canala, turnout dropped from 91% in 2020 to just 1.37% yesterday. Social media spread an image of Canala mayor Gilbert Tyuienon watching a movie on his tablet, in front of an empty ballot box, after he authorised polling officials to relax. The first voter in Canala’s town hall only turned up four hours after polling began.

Symbolically, not one person voted in the Kanak tribe of Tiendanite, birthplace of the martyred FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Last year, there was a 100% Yes vote for independence.

The FLNKS and a broad coalition of independence groups had asked voters to stay at home, go fishing, attend church or tend to their gardens. A lot of voters, Kanak and non-Kanak, were already disengaged from the political debate.

Independence leaders had long argued that many families are still reeling from a major surge of COVID-19 in September and October, that has seen more than 12,479 cases and 280 deaths in New Caledonia, in a population of nearly 272,000. On Sunday, other villagers were battening down the hatches in preparation for a tropical depression north of the islands, which threatens storms and floods in coming days as Cyclone Ruby.

In response to this “non-participation” in New Caledonia’s referendum, the mood was peaceful and quiet across the islands throughout Sunday. The French High Commission in Noumea confirmed that there were no incidents or disruption of voting at polling booths.

Uncertain future

Some anti-independence leaders have now issued triumphalist statements, praising voters who have said No to independence on three occasions under the 1998 Noumea Accord.

President of the Southern Province Sonia Backès, leader of the anti-independence Les Républicains calédoniennes (LRC), tweeted: “Tomorrow the sun will rise over French New Caledonia. Tonight, New Caledonia is finally catching its breath. The Noumea Accord is finished and with it the exclusion of thousands of voters. We have decided in our heart and conscience to remain French!”

Backès and other leaders of Les Voix du Non alliance (‘The Voices of No’) will now push for revision of the electoral rolls that currently allow only New Caledonian citizens (Kanak and long-term residents) to vote for the three provincial assemblies and national Congress. This push to add tens of thousands of French nationals to the electoral rolls will be fiercely resisted by the independence movement. Plans to revise the allocation of revenues between the three provinces, reducing funds to the North and Loyalty Islands, will also be hard fought.

The triumphal tone of some anti-independence leaders is not matched by all partisans of the French Republic. The day after the vote, the editorial in New Caledonia’s only daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes said: “It’s no surprise that after the call from the FLNKS not to participate, the No won by an overwhelming majority. However nothing seems settled, even if the President of the Republic thanked New Caledonians for having chosen France as their homeland.”

Even though Sunday’s vote was the last of three under the 1998 Noumea Accord, the French government has proposed negotiations for a new statute, to be finalised by June 2023, then put to popular referendum. France’s Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu arrived in Noumea last Friday, but his trip is in vain according to the LNC editorial: “Nothing is settled and the discussions have stalled…The visit of Sébastien Lecornu is even seen as a provocation by some separatist leaders who do not intend to negotiate with the French State before knowing the result of the next presidential election.”

French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking re-election next April. France must also hold legislative elections for the National Assembly in June, before the appointment of a new Prime Minister and Council of Ministers in Paris. Last week, before the referendum vote, former President of New Caledonia Thierry Santa told Islands Business: “I’m convinced there won’t be three-way talks until the new government is in place after the national elections. The current government can’t solve the problems of New Caledonia in the next few months.”

The decolonisation process is not over and there’s still a long road still to travel. Despite yesterday’s No vote, the lesson of the electoral boycott is clear – there can be no political solution without the involvement of supporters of independence, Kanak and non-Kanak, and their representatives.