The meeting is supposed to start at 6pm, but the audience drifts in slowly and by 7 o’clock, the customary welcome is underway. The Kanak independence movement is gathering in Paita, a town on the outskirts of the capital Noumea, to rally support for this week’s crucial elections in New Caledonia.
A restricted roll of long-term residents will vote this Sunday 11 May, to choose representatives for three provincial assemblies (in the North, South and Loyalty Islands) and for the national Congress in this French Pacific dependency.
For the first time since 1989, the independence movement is presenting a united ticket in the Southern province, in a bid to gain a majority in New Caledonia’s Congress. The four political parties that make up the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) have developed a joint list of candidates with other parties that are not formal members of the independence coalition: Parti Travailliste (PT), Dynamique Unitaire Sud (DUS), Libération Kanak Socialiste (LKS) and the local branch of the French Socialist Party.
After 15 years transition under the 1998 Noumea Accord, this week’s vote is important for the future political status of New Caledonia. By 3/5 majority, the incoming Congress can decide to proceed to a referendum on self-determination. If a date is not set, the French State must organise a vote before 2018, although opponents of independence are actively campaigning for alternative scenarios to avoid a popular vote.
Voting is not compulsory under New Caledonia’s electoral system, so it’s important for supporters and opponents of independence to mobilise their base and woo new converts. Around the country, candidates are campaigning: handing out leaflets to potential supporters, using blogs, Youtube and Facebook to reach younger voters, kissing babies in the markets and organising old-style public meetings.
Building a rainbow nation
Last week, around 300 people gathered in Paita’s community hall to meet candidates of the independence movement’s united electoral list. Former political rivals stand together on the stage beneath a giant Kanak flag and a banner with the unity ticket’s slogan: Construisons notre nation arc-en-ciel (Let us build our rainbow nation together).
As the evening progresses, speaker after speaker highlights the imbalance between indigenous Kanaks and the European community which makes up the bulk of the Southern province’s population.
For Marie-Pierre Goyetche of the Parti Travailliste (Labour Party), the issue is employment. Goyetche, President of the USTKE trade union confederation, highlights the need for training for young Kanaks, so they can compete in the jobs market with migrants arriving from France or Wallis and Futuna. For Jean-Pierre Deteix of the Socialist Party, the challenge is housing, with 8000 people living in squatter settlements around Noumea and thousands more seeking adequate public housing. Yvon Faua of the Rassemblement Démocratique Océanien (RDO) talks of education, the challenges for Kanaks and islanders to succeed in the French education system and the importance of the school as a place to develop civic values. Sylvain Pabouty (DUS) and Louis Mapou (Palika) highlight the need for economic development to build an independent nation.
But then Roch Wamytan takes to the stage. Wamytan heads the rainbow electoral ticket, as a high chief from Saint Louis, a former President of the FLNKS, a past chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and currently Speaker of New Caledonia’s outgoing Congress.
The veteran Kanak leader calls on the audience to rally their friends, family and neighbours to vote next Sunday, 11 May.
“Our opponents always forget their history,” he says. “But these elections are part of the long struggle of the Kanak people to determine the future of our nation, our rainbow nation, and to develop as a sovereign country.”
Unity in the South
On 11 May, a restricted electorate of long-term residents will vote for 76 members in three provincial assemblies, with 40 seats in the South, 22 in the North and 14 in the outlying Loyalty Islands. A proportion of these assembly representatives (32 from the South, 15 from the North and 7 from the islands) make up the 54-member Congress.
At their first meeting a week after the election, members of Congress choose the 11-member Government of New Caledonia, who then select the President and Vice President of the country. Only groups with six or more members (11 per cent of the Congress) can gain seats in the multi-party government.
After generations of settlement and ongoing immigration, the Southern province is a bastion of anti-independence sentiment, long dominated by conservative parties loyal to France. European and immigrant Wallisian voters hold sway in the province, while the indigenous Kanak population (who largely support independence) dominate in the rural provinces.
This year, however, the Right is divided between competing parties, uncertain about the future, and the FLNKS hopes to seize the moment.
In the North and Loyalty Islands, the major independence parties Union Calédonienne (UC), Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika) and Parti Travailliste (PT) are running their own tickets, competing to gain a majority in the provincial assemblies.
However, the independence movement has learnt from bitter experience that disunity in the European-dominated South can lead to defeat. To gain a seat, an electoral list must win enough votes to reach the threshold of five per cent of registered voters in the province. In 2004, there were so many pro-independence electoral lists that none of them reached the five per cent barrier. For five years, the Southern assembly had no dissenting voices from the independence movement. At the last elections in 2009, there were three different tickets and only four pro-independence representatives were elected to the 40-member Southern assembly.
In December 2013, the FLNKS Congress in Poya reaffirmed that there should be a united independence ticket in the Southern province. There was common agreement that the head of the list should be Roch Wamytan of Union Calédonienne (the largest party in the FLNKS).
Beyond agreement on the head of the list however, there were months of hard bargaining to determine the order for the remaining candidates. With eight parties in the unity process, there was competition for the top spots that would ensure election to the Congress as well as debate over the manifesto to present to voters.
The negotiations were also complicated by the requirement under France’s parity law that electoral lists include equal representation of men and women (the alternate listing of male and female candidates ensures that more than 40 per cent of New Caledonia’s Congress and assemblies are made up of women, a sharp contrast to most Melanesian parliaments where women are rarely represented in the legislature).
Mobilising the vote
Last March, supporters of independence launched a joint ticket for New Caledonia’s municipal elections under the banner of the Mouvement Nationaliste Unitaire (MNU). Although they could not defeat the anti-independence parties that dominate town hall politics in Noumea and surrounding towns like Paita, Mont Dore and Dumbea, the increased vote for the MNU gave heart to the independence movement for this month’s provincial elections.
In the 2009 Congress, supporters of independence held 23 seats in the 54-member legislature. To win just four more seats would bring the tally to 27-27. With five extra seats in the Congress, the FLNKS and its allies would hold the narrowest of majorities and could nominate the first pro-independence President of the country.
Yvon Faua of the RDO told Islands Business: “At the last elections, we held four seats in the South. In this month’s vote, we are hoping to double that representation and maybe even gain a majority in the Congress for the first time. But we must persuade young voters to look to their future.”
After mobilising their forces for the traditional May Day rally in Noumea last Thursday, the FLNKS will hold further public meetings in Mont Dore and Rivière Salée this week to bring out the vote.
But with less than a week till the elections, there’s still a long way to go. It’s a difficult challenge to win a congressional majority: the independence movement must win a clean sweep in the Loyalty Islands, hold their ground in the Northern Province against a divided loyalist movement and successfully mobilise voters to take on the five anti-independence lists in the South. The RDO is reaching out to the large Wallisian and Tahitian communities in the South, but these Islander voters have long supported parties loyal to France, fearful of their status in an independent Kanaky.
This week is the 25th anniversary of the death of Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou on 4 May 1989. Tjibaou’s vision of an independent Kanaky still inspires the movement, even as the challenges of building a new nation remain.
(Part two of Nic Maclellan’s report will look at the loyalist parties in New Caledonia).