Election preview: French Polynesia

It’s a bit of a quiet time for elections; there are no national elections this weekend, but there is one for the legislature (called the Assembly) of French Polynesia. Back when the French were conducting nuclear tests there we used to claim that French Polynesia was in our backyard – it’s actually more than 5,500 kilometres away (about as far as Bangladesh), but the Pacific Ocean is a big place.

We’ve looked a few times recently at France’s nearer possession, New Caledonia, but I see I haven’t mentioned French Polynesia since this report on the 2013 election. The two offer an interesting contrast: the European presence is stronger in New Caledonia, but so is the independence movement. Ethnic Polynesians constitute the large majority in French Polynesia, but pro-independence parties typically attract less than a third of the vote.

In both cases, however, their politics were long dominated by a European elite and a patriarchal leader: Jacques Lafleur in New Caledonia and Gaston Flosse in Polynesia. Lafleur died in 2010; Flosse is still with us, but has been out of office since his disqualification in 2014 following a conviction for fraud.

So the pattern in Polynesia has been that a relatively united pro-independence party – now called Tavini Huiraatira (“Servant of the People”) and led by veteran Oscar Temaru – has confronted an anti-independence side that is much larger but divided between supporters and opponents of Flosse. For several years prior to the 2013 election, that led to a rapid rotation in office due to shifting alliances between three roughly equal groups, as personal animosities took precedence over actual policy positions.

The introduction of a new electoral system in 2013 brought some stability by giving a bonus allocation of seats to the party winning a plurality, generally assuring it of a majority. Flosse’s party, Tahoera’a Huiraatira (“Popular Rally”), won that election, and after his disqualification the following year his deputy, Édouard Fritch, succeeded him as the territory’s president.

But then the pattern repeated. Flosse and Fritch had a falling out, and Fritch joined with other anti-independence and anti-Flosse members to form a new party, Tapura Huiraatira (“List of the People”). It then convincingly won the 2018 election, with 49.2% of the second round vote and 38 of the 57 seats (of which 19 are the plurality bonus). The remnant loyal to Flosse had 27.7% and 11 seats, while Temaru’s group had 23.1% and eight seats.

French Polynesians will vote on Sunday in the first round, to be followed (unless one party wins more than half the vote) by a second round two weeks later. The main point of the first round is to winnow out small parties; only those with more than 12.5% go through to the second round, although any that get between 5% and 12.5% can merge their candidates with one of the successful lists, if it’s willing to have them.

The same three groups again look like taking most of the votes. Fritch (who is 71) is seeking a second full term as president; Temaru, at the age of 78, is also running again (he has previously been president five terms times, although never for very long); and Flosse, aged 91, who now claims to be a supporter of independence, has his own party, Amuitahiraa o te nuna’a Maohi (“Rally of the Maohi People”), officially led by Bruno Sandras.

Having achieved a degree of political stability, it seems that what the voters now need is a way to accomplish some generational change.


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