On Sunday 11 May elections were held in New Caledonia. They will have a big impact on the future of the French territory.
These were the final elections under the 1998 Noumea Accord. This Accord, building on the 1988 Matignon Accords, put an end to bloodshed over demands for independence. They endorsed a democratically elected local Congress and postponed an independence vote to some time between 2014 and 2019. It is this newly elected Congress that will decide the future of New Caledonia.
If three-fifths of the Congress agree, a referendum process will begin, and centre on three issues: the future international status of New Caledonia, the transfer of some key responsibilities currently in French hands, and citizenship issues such as voting and employment rights. If representatives cannot agree, France itself must hold a referendum.
Politics in New Caledonia revolve around favouring independence or staying with France. The pro-France groups have consistently held the majority in the four elections since the Accord was signed, despite voting being restricted to longstanding residents (a response to Kanak concerns at being outnumbered by inflows of metropolitan French). But since 1998 both pro-France and pro-independence groups have become fragmented and divided, perhaps contributing to increasing voter complacency; turnout was only 67% this time, compared to 74% in 1999 (and 76% in 2004, 72% in 2009).
This time, neither the pro-France nor the pro-independence group won a sufficient number of seats to ensure a three-fifths majority in their own right.
The pro-France group has paid the price of division, winning only 29 of the 54 Congress seats. The pro-independence group has been sufficiently disciplined to not only win 25 Congress seats (compared to 23 in 2009) but also to secure 7 of the 40 provincial seats in the mainly pro-France Southern Province.
These results mean that the leader of the largest single group, the pro-France Caledonie Ensemble, Philippe Gomes, will need to reach out not only to other pro-France groups in the Congress but also to the pro-independence groups as the Congress addresses the difficult post-Noumea Accord referendum issues.
There are three encouraging aspects to these elections.
- They took place peacefully, as have all elections since the 1998 Accord. This should not be underestimated in this territory, which has seen violence and civil war. It is a tribute to both groups and to the so-far successful management by France.
- Extreme groups at either end of the political spectrum have been either entirely marginalised or had their representation significantly reduced. The ultra right wing National Front (and a successor party that ran this time) have won no seats since 2009. The extreme left wing pro-independence party, the Labour Party, won only one Congress seat, compared to four in 2009.
- The pattern of at least some representation by both major groups in the two wealthiest provinces has continued. In the richest, mainly European, Southern Province, the pro-independence group increased its representation from 4 to 7 of the 40-member Provincial Assembly. The pro-France group won 4 of the 22 seats (compared to 2 in 2009) in the mainly Kanak Northern Province, the site of the massive new Koniambo nickel project, although it did not manage any representation in Loyalty Islands Province, where it also lost out in 2009.
These three factors, along with the weaker majority of the pro-France group in the Congress, contribute to a political imperative for each major group to accommodate the other as the difficult discussions about the future of New Caledonia proceed. These difficulties should not be underestimated. The differences are wide. But an examination of their respective positions outlined during the campaign points to scope for cooperation.
In the pro-France camp (29 seats), all groups with representation in the 2014 Congress want New Caledonia to stay with France, but with significant nuances.
- Gomes' Caledonie Ensemble (15 seats including 2 from its partner Une Province pour Tous) favours only one referendum instead of the three provided for under the Noumea Accord, focused on a simple choice between independence and extensive autonomy within France.
- The next largest party, the Front pour l'Unite (7seats), wants discussions with the pro-independence groups aimed at preventing any referendum at all, or if one can't be avoided, one which will ensure remaining with France.
- The third pro-France party, the Union pour la Caledonie dans la France (6 seats), wants a referendum by no later than 2015 (rather than by 2019 as provided for under the Accord), focused on staying with France.
- The Entente provinciale Nord (1 seat) proposes a statute of extensive autonomy within France.
For their part, with the exception of the left wing Labour Party, the pro-independence groups (25 seats) are focused on 'sovereignty' and 'emancipation' rather than independence, suggesting room for compromise.
- Palika leader Paul Neaoutyine (7 seats) proposes 'Caledonian citizenship, with a voluntary step to full emancipation…for equal and sovereign relations with France and all other free nations'.
- FLNKS leader Roch Wamytan (6 seats) espouses 'full sovereignty…in today's realities…ready for cooperation agreements, even management of certain responsibilities, with France and Europe as with other regional countries'.
- The UC-FLNKS (9 seats) favours full application of the Noumea Accord including on the three main referendum questions, a position shared by the small Union pour construire les Loyautes (1 seat). (The FLNKS and UC-FLNKS can be seen as a coalition of 15 seats.)
- The smaller group Dynamique autochtone (1 seat) assumes full sovereignty, supporting a 'delegation of sovereignty' wherever the sovereign country would not have the capacity to exercise sovereignty.
- The standout remains the left wing Labour Party (1 seat), whose leader Louis Kotra Uregei refers to creating conditions whereby independence supporters would obtain the majority, after which it would control the country, culminating in independence.
When taken together, these features of the latest New Caledonian elections form a basis for considered discussion and compromise in the coming final term under the Noumea Accord, and deserve close attention and support from Australia.