An upset in Polynesia

For the last few years we’ve followed intermittently the saga of New Caledonia’s contest over independence from France, concluding (for the moment) with an unsatisfactory referendum at the end of 2021 that was boycotted by the pro-independence forces. Now, however, its sister territory of French Polynesia has leapt into contention on the issue by electing a pro-independence government.

French Polynesia went to the polls in two rounds on 16 and 30 April: see my preview here. The territory’s incumbent president, Édouard Fritch, and his moderate anti-independence party, List of the People, went into the election as favorites, having apparently taken the measure of their rivals on the anti-independence side, the veteran Gaston Flosse and his new party, Rally of the Maohi People.

But the voters had other ideas. In the first round, List of the People won only 30.5% of the vote, down 12.6% from 2018. Flosse’s list did even worse with 11.9%, down 17.5% and falling below the 12.5% threshold for eligibility for the second round. Even so, their combined total was well ahead of the pro-independence party, Servant of the People, which topped the poll with 34.9%. (See official results here.)

At this point it’s necessary to say something about the electoral system. Two-round voting is mostly used for the same purpose as preferential voting in Australia: to ensure that the winner has majority support. But that only works when the second round is confined to two candidates or tickets, and in the version used in French local and regional elections – including now in Polynesia – that’s not the case.

Instead, any ticket that passes the 12.5% threshold can go through to the second round. Tickets that are above the threshold don’t have to stay in; they can merge their candidates into one of the other tickets, as can tickets that have been knocked out but had more than 5% of the vote. The second round winner then gets a bonus allocation of a third of the seats (in this case, 19 out of 57), regardless of whether or not it wins a majority of the vote.

So on Sunday there were three tickets contesting the second round: Servant of the People; a joint ticket (called Union of Autonomists against Independence) combining Fritch’s and Flosse’s groups; and a new far-right ticket, “I Love Polynesia”, which had 14.5% in the first round. Another anti-independence group, “Long Live the People”, had 4.4% of the first round vote, falling just below the 5% mark.

Other pro-independence tickets had only received a handful of votes: 2.0% for Hau Māʻohi and 1.9% for the Greens. There’s no doubt that majority sentiment is against independence, but Servant of the People’s strategy was to downplay that question and focus on the inadequacies of Fritch’s government, particularly the very bad Covid experience of 2021.

And it worked. Servant of the People added almost another ten points to its first-round vote to finish with 44.3%, well clear of the Union of Autonomists with 38.5% and I Love Polynesia on 17.2%. With the bonus, that gives it 38 seats against 16 and three respectively for the others. Although its leader, Oscar Temaru, has been president of the territory a few times, it’s the first time the pro-independence forces have actually won a majority.

France’s interior minister promised to “work with the newly elected majority with commitment and rigour,” but the result greatly complicates the French government’s strategy for managing its overseas possessions, including the continuing headache of New Caledonia. Polynesia is further back in the queue for independence, but its new government will be keen to ensure that the issue isn’t forgotten in Paris.


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