Six months after New Caledonia voted against independence from France, this weekend’s provincial elections will offer a new opportunity to test the same question. Walter Zweifel specially for the RNZ.
Politics in New Caledonia continue to be defined as an overarching contest between those for and those against independence and not as a battle between the left and right.
While previous elections always resulted in a Congress, and then a government, dominated by the pro-French camp, this year may see the balance tilt.
For this to happen, the anti-independence camp would have to lose three or more seats in the 54-strong Congress.
The anti-independence side fears this could happen, the pro-independence side hopes it will.
The decision rests with the officially 169,635 registered voters wooed by no fewer than 25 lists of candidates.
The Noumea Accord, which is the decolonisation roadmap agreed to in 1998, keeps guiding the institutional process for the next few years.
This means that New Caledonia’s parliament, or Congress, as well as the collegial 11-member government must emanate from the three assemblies chosen in the three provinces.
The Northern Province and the Loyalty Islands Province have assemblies with 22 and 14 seats respectively.
Both provinces, with their large Kanak majorities, are bastions of the pro-independence politicians.
In the dominant Southern Province, centred on Noumea with its strongly anti-independence population, the assembly has 40 members.
Out of these three assemblies, 54 members are drawn to form the Congress which is chosen for a five-year period.
The referendum in November, which saw just under 57 percent opt for the status-quo, was decided by voters who had to have lived there since 1998.
The roll was restricted and inscribed in the French constitution to counter the effects of migration from France which has turned the indigenous Kanaks into a minority.
The provincial elections have a similarly restricted roll, leaving off an estimated 40,000 people although they may have been living there for years.
Associations and campaigns since last November to loosen the voting restrictions have been rebuffed by the pro-independence side which insists on following the process to the letter.
Three anti-independence parties – the Rassemblement, the Caledonian Republicans and the MPC – entered into an election-related coalition in February.
Calling themsleves ‘Future with Confidence’, their avowed goal is to secure a continued majority of the anti-independence camp after the unexpectedly close result in last November’s referendum.
Anti-independence parties in New Caledonia alliance Photo: Supplied
Hoping to make inroads in the Loyalty Islands province, the group joined forces with the biggest anti-independence party, Caledonia Together, but niggles of how to rank their respective candidates led to them splitting again.
Conversely, the pro-independence FLNKS umbrella group opted for a unitary list in the southern province, hoping that pooling voters clears the way for that bit of extra representation to at last secure a majority in Congress.
The Labour Party, which in New Caledonia is small, failed to hook up to the FLNKS which shuns it because of its dismissal of the referendum in November when the Labour leader advised supporters not to vote but to go fishing instead.
There are several small parties seeking representation for the first time, including parties representing ethnic minorities such as Polynesian settlers from Wallis and Futuna.
The National Rally, formerly the National Front, wants to get back into the assembly in the southern province.
Its chances are seen as slim despite the huge support its leader Marine Le Pen had in Noumea when she ran for the French presidency two years ago.
The incoming Congress will be faced with discontent over the state of the economy and worry about how to fund health care and retirement provision.
The overshadowing concern is the high cost of living which mobilises more people than any other problem.
Tax reforms have failed to bring the hoped for relief and large disparities persist.
The construction sector is crying out for investment, suffering from the slowdown after years of boom when the nickel sector shielded New Caledonia from the downturn earlier this decade.
Yet, there is renewed optimism in the nickel sector after years of losses.
SLN, which is the biggest private sector employer, has secured the right to export nickel ore in the hope of generating enough income to see it through its restructure.
Vale, which two years ago threatened to mothball its multi-billion dollar plant at Goro, has announced $US500 million worth of upgrades.
Although last November’s referendum was a clear victory for the anti-independence supporters, the pro-independence side took heart from the result because it had defied all predictions.
Polls suggested only about 30 percent would back independence, prompting calls to forgo any further such plebiscites.
But with more than 43 percent in favour of independence, the FLNKS immedieately confirmed that it would insist on the two more referendums still possible under the Noumea Accord.
The anti-independence side failed to find a unified voice in the referendum aftermath.
Future with Confidence now wants the next referendum to go ahead as soon as early 2020, suggesting the percentage of voters wanting to remain French to be bigger than last year.
Caledonia Together, however, says after the elections, discussions should be held to stave off a second or a third referendum as they would be a brake on economic activity and a source of tension.
A senior FLNKS politician Paul Neaoutyine says the decolonisation process has to end with New Caledonia again attaining its sovereignty.
There have been no opinion polls in the run up to this Sunday’s vote.
While it will be clear by the end of Sunday how the parties have fared, the picture of how the independence question will be dealt with will remain opaque.