Although delayed by a month by Covid-19, voters in New Caledonia will next month return to the polls for the second of three possible votes on whether the Pacific island territory should become independent from France.
The campaign is sharpening polarisation between pro-independence and loyalist groups as they seek to strengthen their showing over the 2018 referendum, if only to improve their negotiating positions in discussions about the future governance of New Caledonia.
France’s main challenge is once again to balance its territorial preference as sovereign power while organising an impartial process seen to be such by each party, and by the wider region.
The Noumea Accord
Australia’s closest neighbour east of Queensland will vote as part of self-determination processes agreed under the 1998 Noumea Accord, to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
The Accord is the last of a number of agreements that ended civil war over indigenous Kanak-led independence demands in the 1980s.
It postponed a vote on independence until after a series of agreed handovers of responsibilities from France to local authorities, and economic re-balancing efforts between the primarily Kanak Northern and Islands Provinces and the wealthier, mainly European, Southern Province.
This final stage provides for up to three votes every two years from 2018, so long as the answer remains “no” to independence.
Under finely negotiated provisions, only longstanding residents (essentially all voting-age indigenous Kanak voters and those with 20 years’ residence to 2014) are eligible to vote.
If in the event three votes are held and the answer remains “no”, then discussions must be held about the future. All responsibilities handed over and institutions created under the agreements, including provincial assemblies and a territory congress, are irreversible.
Discussions would focus on core sovereign powers currently with France (defence, foreign affairs, currency, justice and law and order), international status, citizenship (special voting and employment rights for longstanding residents), some powers not yet transferred (tertiary education, broadcast media, some administrative issues), control of immigration including from metropolitan France, and the distribution of returns from New Caledonia’s nickel industry which have underpinned the Accords.
The 2018 referendum
The first vote was held in November 2018 and resulted in 56.7% voting “no” to independence, and 43.3% voting “yes”.
The difference between the two sides was about 18,000 votes, of a total eligible cohort of 174,154. Turnout at 81% was high for New Caledonian elections, although 33,000 abstained.
Importantly, the vote was split strongly along ethnic lines, the predominantly “yes” voting areas coinciding with Kanak areas, as evident in independence party support in provincial elections in May 2019, and over previous decades.
This time round, both loyalist and independence groups will be working to increase voter turnout even beyond the high 2018 levels, to retain at least the support they attracted then, and to increase their support.
The eligible voter cohort will be 180,640, including around 6,000 more voters than in 2018 as eligible young people have attained the 18-year old threshold.
The pro-independence side has the harder task, to pick up at least 18,000 extra votes. It did manage to increase its holdings in May 2019 provincial elections, from 25 to 26 of the 54 Congress seats.
Loyalists made a relatively poor showing, dropping from 29 to 28 seats, but these include three won by a new Wallisian islander party which has shown itself since to be variably aligned.
While it would seem an impossible task for the independence group to achieve a “yes” vote, maintaining or increasing its strength will heighten its influence in the main game, which is working out the future governance of New Caledonia, regardless of a possible “no” vote in all three referendums.
Unsurprisingly both sides have polarised in recent months, but we are getting more detail on what they see as the future.
Six of the hardline “no” parties have combined in a coalition called Les Loyalistes, and did not include the more moderate Calédonie Ensemble which was the largest single party before the 2019 provincial elections.
They have for the first time outlined their plan for the future, seeking re-formulation of political representation and financial resource ratios between the three Provinces to reduce the influence of the independence groups.
On the other side, the mainstream Front de Libération Nationale et Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) dominates, with the hardline pro-independence Parti Travailliste joining ranks in a new coalition with a small new party.
The FLNKS has updated its 2018 plans for an independent Kanaky-Nouvelle-calédonie. It has also hit out at negotiations for an Australian company, New Century, to take over the troubled multi-billion dollar nickel plant in Southern Province, advocating local control.
By 8 September, the company had withdrawn its offer.
The role of France
For its part, conscious of regional attention, as in 2018, France is claiming to oversee a scrupulously impartial process that will be accepted by all parties, as well as by the region, and globally.
It has released its required statement for voters of consequences of a “yes” or “no” vote, playing safe in an almost identical statement to that of 2018.
As in 2018, France will provide 250 electoral officials from metropolitan France, who will quarantine in New Caledonia for two weeks before the vote.
The UN and Pacific Islands Forum missions are again able to send missions, but this time members will have to quarantine.
In contrast to the 2018 campaign, FLNKS leaders have been directly critical of France. They criticised as colonialist France’s one-size-fits-all pandemic management in New Caledonia, where owing to strict local government quarantine measures there have been few cases (28 cases, no deaths) unlike in metropolitan France.
Independence leaders called for the expulsion of senior French officials, including its High Commissioner, for flouting local quarantine.
Loyalists in turn claimed this was a ploy to sway France in dealing with their requests for an early vote (independence groups paradoxically favoured substantially delaying the vote) and for permission to use the French flag in the campaign (virulently opposed by independence groups).
In the end, France chose to postpone the vote, originally scheduled for early September, to 4 October; and agreed to loyalist use of the tricolore.
Independence leaders have also criticised France’s statement of consequences of a “yes” vote, saying that it did not reflect bilateral discussions earlier this year with France.
In a recent re-shuffle, French President Emmanuel Macron has appointed ministers with a thin familiarity with New Caledonia’s complex issues at this delicate time. Former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had taken a close personal role in negotiations with both sides.
Neither the new Prime Minister nor the new Overseas-France Minister have experience of France’s overseas territories, nor of New Caledonian issues in particular.
Banner image: New Caledonia's two official flags hang on the same pole - the native Kanak flag and the French tricolour. Source: George Garrigues via Wikimedia Commons