05 May 2014

Independence supporters in New Caledonia unite for sovereignty

Independence movement launches unity ticket 

       Islands Business

Exclusive story
By Nic Maclellan 
From Paita, New Caledonia

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).

United Nations sends mission to New Caledonia


By Nic Maclellan
The United Nations has sent a delegation to New Caledonia in the lead up to crucial municipal and provincial elections as supporters and opponents of independence joust over who should have the right to vote.
The UN delegation arrived in New Caledonia in March in the midst of the electoral campaign for local town councils. The visit also coincided with the arrival of French judges charged with updating the electoral rolls for national elections to be held on 11 May.

According to a UN statement, the objective of the visit is to monitor “New Caledonia’s provincial electoral process, especially the technical issues related to the electoral lists for the provincial elections in May, as well as to uphold the spirit and letter of the 1998 Noumea Accord in this process.”

New Caledonia was relisted with the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 1986, and since that time the UN has maintained a watching brief over progress towards a referendum on self-determination in the French Pacific dependency.

As Islands Business magazine goes to press, voters in New Caledonia are awaiting the results of two rounds of voting in municipal elections held on 23 and 30 March.

The final results will give an indication of the balance of forces within and between political camps. A good result in the municipal elections will also provide momentum for political parties as they campaign for elections in May for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national Congress.
This year’s election is the culmination of a long transition under the Noumea Accord - if the incoming Congress agrees by 3/5 majority, the country can proceed to a vote on New Caledonia’s final political status. After 15 years of collegial government, relations between leading political figures have begun to fray in the lead up to the crucial vote.

United Nations scrutiny

The United Nations delegation was led by Amadu Koroma of Sierra Leone, vice president of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, joined by representatives from Ecuador, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, together with UN decolonisation experts and officials.

The two Pacific nations are both members of the UN decolonisation committee. Papua New Guinea’s UN ambassador Robert Aisi, chair of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group, was joined in New Caledonia by Esala Nayasi, political director at the Fijian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

While the visit was approved by the French Government, local anti-independence parties soon made it clear that they did not support the UN involvement in New Caledonian affairs. The Union pour une Calédonie dans la France, which unites some parties loyal to France, stated: “We state that the Union for New Caledonia within France does not support this visit… This visit brings with it tension and confusion, at a time we have need of clarity and serenity.” 

Philippe Gomes, leader of the anti-independence Calédonie Ensemble (CE), attacked the presence of a Fijian representative in the UN delegation. In a similar gesture to the one he made before the 2013 Melanesian Spearhead Group summit in New Caledonia, Gomes wrote to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticising Fiji as a “military dictatorship” that should not “interfere in the affairs of a democratic country.”

The UN mission met with political and community leaders, the Kanak Customary Senate and provincial authorities. It will present its report to a regional seminar of the UN Special Committee, to be held in Fiji in May, and the next formal meeting of the committee in New York.

Municipal elections

The municipal elections have brought new faces to local politics. Long-serving Mayor of Noumea Jean Leques announced last year that he would not re-contest his position on the capital city’s town council. Leques, an 82-year-old veteran of anti-independence politics, was first elected mayor in 1986 at the height of armed conflict between supporters and opponents of independence. From 1999, he also served as the President of New Caledonia for two years, following the first elections held after the signing of the Noumea Accord.

In a city where the majority of voters are of European heritage and oppose independence from France, there is a fierce competition for the top job between three anti-independence parties: Calédonie Ensemble (CE) led by Philippe Gomes; Rassemblement UMP (RUMP) led by Pierre Frogier, and the breakaway party Mouvement Populaire Calédonien (MPC) led by Gael Yanno.

Yanno, a former deputy mayor in Noumea, left the largest conservative party RUMP last year and established his own group after falling out with RUMP leader Pierre Frogier. Yanno is seeking to rally conservative French voters, criticising RUMP’s policies and Frogier’s attempts to build links with Union Calédonienne (UC), the largest pro-independence party in the country. RUMP has lost some support from European voters after it backed independence leader Roch Wamytan to be Speaker of New Caledonia’s Congress and endorsed the policy of flying two flags - the French tricolour and the flag of Kanaky - outside public buildings. 

In a pre-election coup, Yanno persuaded the conservative UMP party in France to formally endorse his breakaway group rather than the larger RUMP, to the annoyance of RUMP mayoral candidate Jean-Claude Briault. Another leading RUMP politician, Pierre Bretegnier, also defected to the MPC in the middle of the municipal election campaign.

The other leading candidate for Mayor of Noumea is Sonia Lagarde of the Calédonie Ensemble party. As well as serving in New Caledonia’s Congress, Lagarde is also deputy in France’s National Assembly in Paris, after defeating the long-standing RUMP representative in 2012 elections. 

For the municipal vote in the southern province, much of the independence movement has launched the Mouvement Nationaliste Unitaire (MNU) led by Jean-Raymond Postic. This is a united list that includes activists from a range of pro-independence forces: FLNKS members (UC, UPM and RDO) together with parties that support independence but are not formal members of the independence coalition: Libération Kanak Socialiste (LKS); Dynamik Unitaire Sud (DUS) and Parti Travailliste (PT).

This effort at unity has been undercut by a separate initiative led by Marie Claude Tjibaou, the widow of assassinated Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Her Ouverture Citoyenne (OC) has been widely criticised in the independence movement, with PT President Louis Kotra Uregei suggesting it is a deliberate attempt by the French state to disrupt efforts to build a common pro-independence platform: “Instead of having united pro-independence lists in the South, as it is necessary to prepare for the provincial elections in May, we see once again an Ouverture Citoyenne ticket, as happened in 2009. This list includes the League for Human Rights and the French Socialist Party, which does not support independence for this country - so we ask what are they doing there?” 

This effort by the MNU to unite independence supporters in Noumea has been replicated in nine other municipalities across the country such as the northern town of Hienghene where UC President Daniel Goa is leading a united FLNKS ticket. 

But in other areas in the Northern Province and the outlying Loyalty Islands where Kanaks are the overwhelming majority of the population, each different independence party is running its own list. On the island of Mare there are seven different tickets, while in other municipal battles, the Union Caledonienne (UC), the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika) and the Parti Travailliste (PT) are all running their own tickets, seeking a majority on municipal councils. An FLNKS Congress in January called for competing parties to unite if there is a second round run-off against anti-independence forces.

While the municipal elections were focussed on urban issues, the social gulf between Kanaks and Europeans in Noumea raised broader tensions. CE’s Sonia Lagarde is mobilising support amongst French voters in the city by highlighting issues of security and youth delinquency, focussing attention on the many young, unemployed Kanaks who have moved to the capital looking for education, employment or enjoyment.

In contrast, the MNU electoral statement said: “There are great disparities between the northern and southern suburbs in Noumea. It is vital that we overcome the gap in public infrastructure in the northern suburbs, as well as improving the quality of life of all inhabitants so they can be proud of belonging to the same city.”

For the pro-independence MNU, town councils must work directly with the young: “This population is too often neglected. We must put together the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to help them avoid idleness and living on the edge. This plan would involve a policy of popular education, developing places to support them to provide activities for their spare time, artistic and cultural expression and professional training.”

Different voting rolls

Beyond the basics of housing, public transport, social services and jobs, the campaign for the municipal elections was intensely political, with competing parties seeing the town halls as a springboard for the vote next May to elect provincial assemblies and the national Congress. 

Because voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, it is vital to mobilise uncommitted voters. But the electorate for the municipal vote in March is not exactly the same as the national poll on 11 May. 
New Caledonia’s voting system is different for local, provincial, national and European elections. All French nationals of voting age who register at the local town hall are eligible to vote in the March municipal elections, as well as elections for the National Assembly and Senate in France and European parliament. 

However under the 1998 Noumea Accord, voting for May’s crucial elections for the three provincial assemblies and the Congress is restricted to a limited electoral roll of New Caledonian citizens, rather than all French nationals. This special electoral roll for the local institutions is restricted to those who meet residency criteria set out in the Noumea Accord, a policy confirmed by a joint sitting of the French parliament in 2007. 

At the last Congressional elections in 2009, some 18,230 people resident in New Caledonia —11.8 per cent of the normal electoral roll — could not vote in that year’s elections for the local institutions. These were mainly French public servants, soldiers and short term contract workers who have travelled from Europe to the Pacific, but do not see New Caledonia as their home. In contrast, the independence movement has recognised since 1983 that the so-called “victims of history” - the descendants of the convicts, soldiers and farmers who arrived in New Caledonia in colonial days - were welcome in the country “to build a common destiny.”