Good luck trying to find any coverage of it in the Australian media, but our near neighbor New Caledonia went to the polls on Sunday to elect its territorial and provincial governments.
It was the first test of public opinion since last November’s referendum on independence from France, in which the “no” vote prevailed with a less-than-convincing 56.7%. With another referendum likely next year, it provided further evidence that the territory is polarising around the independence issue.
New Caledonia votes in three provinces: South, North and Loyalty Islands. Each province elects a provincial assembly, and a proportion of those elected sit as members of the territorial congress, which in turn elects (on a power-sharing basis) the territorial government.
In the outgoing congress, elected in 2014, the anti-independence forces held a total of 29 seats, as against 25 for the supporters of independence. On Sunday the independence forces gained a seat, reducing the anti-independence majority to the narrowest possible, 28-26. (Official results are here.)
But the story of what that means in terms of actual voter sentiment gets a bit complicated.
Two of the three provinces – North and Loyalty Islands – are populated mostly by indigenous people, or Kanaks, and vote overwhelmingly for pro-independence candidates. In the North, pro-independence parties won a 19-3 majority in the provincial assembly; in the Loyalty Islands, they won every one of the 14 seats.
But in the South, which contains nearly three-quarters of the population, the European vote predominates. There, parties opposed to independence won 75% of the vote and 33 of the 40 seats in the provincial assembly.
Taking the territory as a whole – but you have to add up the figures yourself, the French won’t do it for you – anti-independence parties had 54.1% of the vote (down 4.4% from 2014) and pro-independence parties 42.4% (up 0.9%), mirroring almost exactly the result of the referendum. (Two small parties that are neutral on the independence question recorded 3.5% between them, but won no seats.)
The anti-independence majority in the congress is significantly narrower than that because its seats are malapportioned. Although 64.4% of the votes came from the South, it only has 59.3% of the seats.* The North is over-represented, with 27.8% of the seats but only 22.9% of the votes.
That raised the distinct possibility that the pro-independence forces could have won a majority in the territorial congress with a minority of the vote. It didn’t happen this time, but it remains an issue for the future.
The overall balance of forces wasn’t the only thing that changed. On the anti-independence side, the dominant party in recent years has been the centrist Caledonia Together (formerly Future Together), which has headed the government almost continuously since 2004.
But on Sunday it lost ground badly, dropping to 14.5% of the vote (down 11.6%) and losing eight of its 15 seats. Its centre-right rivals, which in 2014 ran as two separate lists, were united under the banner of “Future with Confidence” (L’Avenir en confiance) and easily took first place, with 29.4% of the vote and 18 seats.
Also on the anti-independence side was a new party, Oceanic Awakening, which represents the interests of the Wallis and Futuna Islander community; it won 5.5% of the vote and three seats.
There were no large shifts on the pro-independence side. Its vote remains concentrated under the umbrella of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), which runs as a single ticket in the South and two separate tickets in each of the other provinces. In aggregate they won 34.7% of the vote (up 0.3%) and 24 seats (up two). Two small far-left pro-independence parties won a seat each.
Independence or not, of course, was already the defining issue of New Caledonian politics; that’s nothing new. But the decline of the more moderate and multicultural Caledonia Together, and its replacement by parties that are more clearly European and more uncompromising on independence, is not a good sign for the territory’s ability to reach a consensus on its future.
What I wrote last year is still true:
It’s easy to see how this could end very badly. As the events of the 1980s showed, New Caledonia is capable of descending into violence, and if the two communities are unable to find common ground then the territory could conceivably become a sort of miniature Algeria.
While the two sides remain evenly poised, the momentum for now is with the supporters of independence. But the rise of the Wallisians reflects the demographic reality that neither Europeans nor Kanaks can command a majority on their own. Compromises are going to have to be made, somehow.
* The South’s proportion of the vote is much smaller than its share of the population because European residents have to have lived in New Caledonia since 1998 to qualify for the electoral roll.