Government and governance | The Pacific

30 September 2020

In the lead-up to this week’s independence referendum in New Caledonia, opinions remain polarised about the territory’s future political status, writes Nic Maclellan.

On 4 October 2020, New Caledonians will vote in a referendum on self-determination, to determine the political status of the French Pacific dependency.

This is the second referendum to be held under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed in May 1998 by the French state, anti-independence politicians, and leaders of the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS). The Accord includes a unique provision creating up to three referendums on the transfer of sovereign powers, after a 20-year transition (if the first vote for independence is unsuccessful, a third of the members of the local Congress can call for a second and then a third referendum).

On 4 November 2018, New Caledonians went to the polls for the first referendum under the Noumea Accord. The French government reported that 56.67 per cent of voters decided to remain within the French Republic, while 43.33 per cent voted Yes for independence.

These figures, with a clear majority opposing full sovereignty, could be read as a setback for New Caledonia’s independence movement. But partisans of the French Republic were disheartened by the size of the Yes vote, which opened the way for the second referendum.

This year’s vote, however, will not simply be a replay of the 2018 poll. There are several elements that will affect the outcome as well as the ongoing decolonisation process.

The first is the level of abstention. After years of disputes over eligibility to vote, 174,165 people were registered on the special electoral roll for the November 2018 referendum. However voting is not compulsory, and around 33,000 people did not turn out on the day. There were also 1,143 void and 1,023 blank votes.

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Despite voter enrolment programs, hundreds of people claimed they could not vote because of delay and confusion over registration. Special polling booths were set up in Noumea for people from the outer islands living in the capital, but some found it difficult to register or access proxy votes.

Given the difference of around 18,000 votes in the final result, both supporters and opponents of independence have sought to mobilise support in this pool of uncommitted voters. Participation rates in 2018 varied across the country: 83 per cent in the Southern Province, 86 per cent in the North, but only 61 per cent in the Loyalty Islands (where the population is overwhelmingly Kanak). The FLNKS is aiming for a higher turnout in the Islands this time, the anti-independence movement in greater Noumea.

In the lead up to the 2018 referendum, conservative politicians predicted a 70/30 result, expecting a strategic defeat for the independence movement. The French media and polling organisations also predicted a poor result for the Yes vote. A series of opinion polls throughout 2018 stated the Yes vote would fall between 15 and 34 per cent.

However French loyalists misjudged the strength of support for independence amongst the colonised Kanak people, particularly among the younger generation, who were not born at the time of the violent clashes between 1984-88.

Opponents of independence are eager not to make the same mistake in 2020, trying to mobilise European voters who didn’t turn out in 2018. With indigenous Kanak at around 40 per cent of the population, however, the independence movement must expand existing support from other communities to win.

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The 2018 referendum gave heart to the FLNKS to continue with the decolonisation process. Since that time, there have been significant reconfigurations in both political camps.

This year, six political parties opposed to independence have a forged an unwieldy alliance, dubbed the ‘Loyalists’, to run a coordinated campaign for a No vote. They have issued a common platform that seeks to roll back many of the achievements of the Noumea Accord: the creation of a collegial, multi-party government; extra funding for rural areas and outlying islands; and better representation from the two Kanak-majority provinces in the national Congress. Some members of the Loyalists have even proposed the partition of the country – a clear breach of the Accord.

Calédonie Ensemble (CE) is the only significant anti-independence party that has refused to join the Loyalists. CE was the largest party in New Caledonia’s Congress between 2009-2019. However, the shock of the 2018 referendum discredited CE’s policy of engagement with the independence movement. The party faced internal splits and was punished at the polls during 2019 provincial elections and 2020 municipal elections, and is now running a separate No campaign.

In the independence camp, the left-wing Party Travailliste and trade union confederation USTKE advocated ‘non-participation’ in the 2018 referendum, arguing the colonised Kanak people alone should vote. This year, however, both are calling for a Yes vote, banding together with other indigenous activists to form the Mouvement Nationaliste pour la Souveraineté de Kanaky (MNSK). Although smaller than the FLNKS, the MNSK will mobilise pockets of support in the rural north and Loyalty Islands who didn’t vote last time.

Another significant change is the creation of a new political party in March 2019, drawing support from the Polynesian communities that make up more than 10 per cent of the electorate. Historically, most Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian voters have opposed independence, but the new Eveil Océanien party has encouraged supporters to stand apart from the Loyalist alliance and decide themselves whether to vote Yes or No.

Another element is the changing role of the French state. In the lead up to the 2018 referendum, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe allocated extensive time to forge a consensus around participation, process and policy for the referendum. But just three months before this year’s vote, President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his Cabinet in Paris, appointing a new prime minister and overseas minister.

Conservative politicians have expressed concern that New Caledonia is not high on the agenda of the new government, at a time France faces more than 30,000 deaths from COVID-19, post-Brexit EU debates, and domestic protests over austerity. At the same time, leaders of the independence movement complain that the French government is actively working against independence, despite of pledges of impartiality.

The current referendum campaign comes in the midst of economic uncertainty, the coronavirus pandemic, and international tensions over relations with China. An early surge of COVID-19 from international travellers was controlled, but border closures have led to significant economic costs. There is uncertainty over future markets for New Caledonia’s vast reserves of nickel ore and the economic viability of three smelters.

In these uncertain times, opinion is shifting and divided. Some voters seek closer ties with the French Republic, hoping for ongoing funding and guarantees of French nationality. Conversely, a majority of the Kanak people and other independence supporters believe that sovereignty and nationhood will better allow them to manage New Caledonia’s post-pandemic future. The vote on 4 October will not end this debate.

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