Author Archives: Jack Corbett

Vanuatu – Nation mourns President Baldwin Lonsdale

The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is in mourning following the sudden death of President Baldwin Lonsdale from a suspected heart attack. Baldwin, a clergyman and the highest-ranking chief in Vanuatu’s Banks group of islands, was one of the most widely respected political figures in the country. His state funeral was attended by heads of state from Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. The Vanuatu Daily Post reported that while it was difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who lined the roughly 6-kilometre long route, there has been no similar public gathering in living memory.

Baldwin took over the largely ceremonial role in September 2014 but it was his handling of the 2015 corruption scandal (discussed previously on this blog) that elevated his standing in the eyes of the nation. The unprecedented case saw 15 MPs tried and convicted of bribery. But, when the convictions were handed down, President Lonsdale was out of the country. In his absence, the Speaker of the House – one of those convicted – was Acting Head of State, and used his powers to pardon himself and his co-defendants.

Returning to Vanuatu, a visibly shaken Lonsdale addressed the nation expressing “shame and sorrow” at what had occurred, stated that “no-one is above the law”, and promised to “clean the dirt from my backyard.” He subsequently revoked the pardons – a move that was then appealed, and upheld – and the MPs went to prison. He also dissolved Parliament and called a snap election. The case was a landmark event for Vanuatu. The convictions sent a clear message to political actors that the types of money politics that had been common in the post-independence era were no longer acceptable.

The election of the new President of the Republic of Vanuatu will be held on July 3, 2017. As outlined previously on the blog, the Electoral College that will vote a new President is made up of the 52 Members of Parliament, the Presidents of the Local Government Councils of the six provinces and mayors of the three municipalities of the country.

Presidential Profile – Hilda Heine, the first woman to head an independent Pacific Islands state

As President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Dr Hilda Heine is the first woman to head an independent Pacific Islands state. She is one of only three women in the 33 member Nitijela (parliament). In the Marshalls, the President is elected by the members of the Nitijela in a way similar to the Westminster model of choosing a Prime Minister. Dr Heine became President in January 2016 with the support of 24 senators, including two of her own cousins. In a small country such as the Marshall Islands (pop. 53,000 in 2011), family ties are central to processes of being elected and forming government. Dr Heine’s own brother, the late Carl Heine, was politically active and served multiple terms in the Nitijela himself.

The Heine family are descended from missionaries and have a strong commitment to education. Hilda Heine was the first and only Marshallese to be awarded a Doctorate in Education. She has had a distinguished career in education, working for the Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) program at the University of Hawai’Ii, and serving as a classroom teacher, President of the College of the Marshall Islands, Secretary of Education and Minster of Education in the Marshall Islands.

Dr Heine’s educational attainments and management experience mean that she is held in high regard as a senior leader of the country, even though she lacks the chiefly lineage that has typified most Marshallese presidents. As President, Hilda Heine is admired for her consultative and inclusive leadership and her ability to make decisions and see them through to implementation. In her fifteen months in office, she has revisited a number of long term national challenges, including climate change, the legacy of ill-health and environmental contamination left by American nuclear testing and ongoing issues of poverty, economic development and emigration to the United States.

In a region characterised by low numbers of women in politics, Dr Heine’s election is something of a watershed. In many ways, she is an exceptional individual: highly educated, having an impressive record of professional experience, and coming from a politically engaged family. These qualities will be difficult to match for other women (or men) seeking to run for office, although they do reflect the qualities of most successful politicians in the Pacific (Corbett and Liki 2015).

Despite, Dr Heine’s exceptional qualities, several factors within the Marshall Islands context make it a place where we should not be surprised to see women in leadership. Traditionally, Marshallese society had a high view of women, especially as land owners, and today the female chiefly office of leroij is maintained alongside the male iroij. This traditional leadership appears to have translated well into modern systems. Many senior public servants are women, including nearly half of the departmental Secretaries.

There is a strong contemporary women’s movement in the Marshall Islands. Along with other women, Dr Heine founded Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), a vibrant and well-established women’s NGO that runs a range of programs designed “to advance the causes and improve the lives of Marshallese women and their families” ( Over many years, WUTMI has provided an organisational structure that has allowed women to make common cause and articulate their needs and concerns in the public domain, often drawing on traditional sayings about the role of women. While not directly involved in campaigning for women in politics, these processes have legitimised Marshallese women’s leadership and paved the way for the success of Dr Heine and other women politicians.

Dr John Cox is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Palau – Remengesau narrowly retains office

While the world’s attention had been focused on the US presidential election, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean the island nation of Palau (population, 20,000), formerly part of the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, also went to the polls. But, where the US appears to have voted for unprecedented change, the people of Palau have opted for stability, returning President Tommy Remengesau for a record fourth term.

The election was interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that Remengesau was running against his brother-in-law, Sen. Surangel Whipps Jr., but also because of how close the ballot was. In the end, the unofficial tally has Remengesau on 5,109 votes while Whipps received 4,854 (In the vice presidential race, Arnold Oilouch is leading with 5,196 votes against Yositaka Adachi who had 4,643 votes). But, this was only decided after a protracted count in which around 3000 absentee votes from Palauan’s living overseas proved crucial. Reflecting this, Remengesau stated on his Facebook page that:

“This campaign required a strong and organized grassroots movement that needed to reach out to the thousands of Palauans here at home and many more thousands of our fellow Palauans living abroad. Throughout my life and career as your grassroots candidate, I have never been through an election such as this. It took so much to get this far, and I am sure you and your family feel the same way. The longest and costliest campaign in our history required us to keep up with the unprecedented campaign efforts of our opponents.”

Remengesau is the eighth President of the Republic of Palau, and the first to be elected for four times. This is not the first political record he has set, however. He was also the youngest ever Palauan Senator when first elected aged 28. He was elected Vice President in 1992 and 1996. He served two terms as President from 2000-2008, stood down to serve as a Senator from 2008-2012 due to a two-term constitutional limit, before being re-elected again in 2012 and now 2016. His father was also Vice President and President of Palau. Outside Palau, Remengesau is best known for championing environmental causes, including establishing a significant portion of Palau’s territorial waters as a marine sanctuary.

Nauru – Waqa government re-elected

Nauru went to the polls on 9 July and returned Baron Waqa’s government for another term. The Pacific island nation has a population of roughly 10,000 (around 8000 registered voters) who elect 19 MPs for three-year terms from multi-seat constituencies by majority vote. There is no formal party system with parliament effectively made-up of 19 independent members. Because Nauru’s president is both head of government and head of state Waqa was re-elected to the post on the floor of parliament by 16 MPs.

Two election observer teams – one from the Pacific Islands Forum and another from the Commonwealth Secretariat – declared the election free and fair, and commended the high voter turnout. It was reportedly the first time in more than a decade that Nauruan elections had been monitored by international observers.

One reason for the heightened interest is that much of the media discussion in the lead up to the election centred on the creeping authoritarianism of the Waqa government (see this blog). Opposition MPs had previously been suspended from parliament – those under house arrest claimed their campaigning activities were curtailed – media commentary was sanctioned and foreign journalists effectively prohibited from entering the country due to high visa fees, and amendments to the criminal code made expressions of ‘political hatred’ punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. Some candidates had their employment contracts terminated – a move commonly believed to be government initiated. The fee for candidate nomination was also hiked to a level that made it prohibitive for many aspirant politicians. This latter measure was contested in Nauru’s Supreme Court, leading to the government eventually dropping the fee from $2000 to $500 (it had previously been $100).

The government has been quick to claim the result as a ringing endorsement of their record and plan for Nauru’s future. In the aftermath of the result Justice Minister David Adeang accused the international media of beating up the accusations against his government as a means of undermining the operation of the Australian Government’s offshore asylum seeker processing centre currently housed on the island. Three of the MPs who had been suspended from the last parliament – Former President Sprent Dabwido, Squire Jeremiah and Mathew Batsiua – lost their seats. Another, Roland Kun, chose not to stand – he has since been granted a New Zealand passport on humanitarian grounds (his Nauruan passport had previously been confiscated on the grounds that he had taken part in anti-government protests and had spoken out against the government in the international media).

Despite the government’s triumphalist tone, this story has a long way left to run. The Australian Federal Police confirmed a week after the election that they were still investigating Getax, the Australian phosphate dealer at the heart of an alleged political corruption scandal. Having left Nauru, Kun is said to be a key witness in that investigation. Needless to say, this is an interesting time in Nauruan politics.


Kiribati – New President Taneti Maamau elected

Kiribati went to the polls again last week to elect Taneti Maamau as their new Beretitenti or President. Under the two round runoff electoral system presidential candidates are nominated by members of the Maneaba ni Maungatabu (parliament) and then compete in a nation wide ballot. Maamau ran against two candidates from the ruling Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) party, Rimeta Beniamina and Tianeti Ioane, eventually winning more than 20,000 votes. The President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government.

Maamau is the fifth president of Kiribati since the country became independent in 1979. As outlined previously on this blog, Kiribati’s stability is an anomaly in a region where votes-of-no-confidence regularly topple governments. Constitutional provisions that ensure votes-of-no-confidence automatically trigger full elections are a key reason why this mechanism is rarely used in Kiribati.

Maamau’s election is significant for a number of reasons:

First, it brings an end to 12 years of BTK rule under the leadership of former President, Anote Tong. Tong had served the maximum three terms allowable under the Kiribati constitution. His advocacy work on climate change issues in particular had thrust the tiny island nation into the international spotlight. In recognition of this achievement Tong was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, the new Beretitenti will initially lead a minority coalition of 20 MPs. The BTK Opposition will have 25 MPs. Holding the new government together while attracting disgruntled MPs from the BTK is likely to be a key feature of Maamau’s first year in office. Indeed, the Coalition have expressed their confidence in winning over new members, with former President, Teburoro Tito, telling Radio New Zealand International that:

“We know that we may not work too hard to attract some of these people form the other party because they have already made indications when the election of the speaker was conducted some weeks back. So we think it is not going to be an insurmountable task for us to get numbers on our side.”

Tito’s confidence reflects the high personalised nature of Kiribati politics and the fact that political parties play a minor role in mobilizing voters. In this context being a member of government offers MPs greater access to resources that, if used effectively, can improve their re-election chances.

Third, the new government has been quick to claim a mandate for change. The nature of this change and the means by which it will achieved remains somewhat unclear. At the very least Maamau’s election represents something of a generational shift with the independence generation of politicians being slowly replaced by a new cohort of leaders. Its not that they are all gone – past presidents Tito and Tabai remain in parliament and the former is likely to be a key figure in Maamau’s government despite not holding a ministerial portfolio – but the baton is being passed on. Given the economic and social challenges that confront the island nation this is a sizable responsibility for the new man in charge and his cabinet.

Marshall Islands – Hilda Heine elected as the Pacific region’s first ever female president

A tumultuous week in Marshallese politics ended last Wednesday with the election of the country (and the region’s) first ever female president, Hilda Heine. The machinations that catapulted Heine to the top job began on Tuesday with the ousting of recently elected President, Casten Nemra, who had served only two weeks of his term, the shortest presidency in the history of Marshall Islands, by a successful vote-of-no-confidence. As previously outlined on this blog, votes-of-no-confidence are a common method by which leaders are replaced in the Westminster-inspired legislatures of the Pacific. And, despite holding the title “President” the Marshallese head of state is nonetheless elected from the floor of parliament.

Nemra was a controversial choice by virtue of his being both the youngest ever Marshallese president and only the second elected to the position from a non-chiefly or commoner background. Heine’s election, however, represents a further break from this tradition. Family ties were the key to her victory. In early January Kwajalein Senator and Iroij (chief) Michael Kabua was said to have orchestrated Nemra’s one-vote victory as president. The key to this power play was the defection of the three Heine family members — all cabinet ministers during the past four years — to the opposition.

The Mariana’s Variety describes the machinations that resulted from this in the following terms:

“The Heines’ move to the opposition followed Nemra offering cabinet postings to only two of the three — Hilda and Wilbur, but not Thomas. The trio’s move followed a number of members of an independent group jumping to support Nemra and later receiving cabinet postings in the short-lived government. But when Nemra announced his cabinet at the January 11 swearing-in ceremony, only eight of the 10 members were named, an omission that suggested the difficulties that were to come in the days following. Another first for the government and Nitijela was last Friday’s resignation from the cabinet of Transportation and Communications Minister Mike Halferty, who held the post for just 11 days. In a one-sentence letter of resignation, he told Nemra he was resigning “for political reasons.” Nemra in turn thanked Halferty for his “integrity and decency in writing to me personally” about his resignation. With his cabinet increasingly in tatters, the no-confidence vote was just a matter of time.”

Heine is used to being the first; she is also the first Marshallese to gain a doctorate. Having spent much of her career in education, she was unsuccessful in her initial attempts to gain a seat in the Nitijela but eventually won election in 2011 representing Aur Atoll. She was subsequently made Minister of Education. On Wednesday she was the sole presidential candidate, eventually securing 24 of a possible 33 votes.

As the first woman to be elected head of government to an independent Pacific nation Heine’s rise to power represents an historic moment for the region. Most Pacific Island countries have only a handful of women MPs (some have none at all) giving it the unfortunate tag of the worst region in the world for women’s representation. In the recent Vanuatu election, for example, only eight women stood and none were successful. There have been high profile exceptions to this trend, including Vice President of Palau, Sandra Pierantozzi and Vice President of Kiribati, Teima Onorio. But, none have made it to the top job before Heine.

Ben Graham outlined last month how the Marshall Islands faces considerable development challenges. Addressing these systemic issues whilst maintaining the fluctuating support of the Nitijela will be a difficult balancing act. All of which means that Heine will have her work cut out for her.

Nauru – Ongoing MP suspensions highlight concerns about democratic freedoms

It has been more than a year since I first wrote on this blog about the suspension of Nauruan MPs from parliament on the grounds that they were being overly critical of the current government’s development strategy. Despite repeated attempts to overturn the ban, the suspension remains. And, in the interim, the situation has escalated.

As long-time readers may recall, the initial controversy surrounded the suspension of three MPs. Since then, the number has risen to five with two further MPs, Sprent Dabwido and Squire Jeremiah, now held in custody for their participation in protests outside parliament. The other three are Dr Kieran Keke, Roland Kun and Matthew Batsiua. Initially Batsiua was also arrested for his role in the protests but has since been released under strict bail conditions. The protests that led to these arrests were related to the ongoing suspensions. The Australian-based lawyer of the accused was recently refused entry into the country to mount a case in their defence.

The suspensions have heightened international interest in the tiny island nation. In June, the Australian Broadcasting Commission reported that a Queensland phosphate importer had allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nauru’s justice minister, David Adeang, the President, Baron Waqa, and other government MPs. Adeang, often cited as the defacto head of government, denied the claims, first raised in the Nauruan parliament in 2009, and accused the Australian media of campaigning to destabilise Nauru. Likewise, President Waqa has stated that its larger neighbours will not bully Nauru and accused the foreign media of bias. In June, he argued that the arrests had nothing to do with the MPs speaking out against the government but reflected the fact that they were ringleaders of a violent protest aimed at toppling a democratically elected government in order to further their thirst for political power. The government has labelled the protest a riot in which several police was injured.

The New Zealand government has been at the forefront of international condemnation of the current state of affairs. In July the parliament unanimously passed a motion expressing concern about the political situation in Nauru. More recently, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, has suspended aid amounting to around $750,000 annually to Nauru.

Australia, on the other hand, the largest aid donor to Nauru and financier of an asylum seeker processing facility on the island, has refused to go this far. Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has expressed dismay at the way the situation has unfolded and has sought assurances from the Nauruan government that the rule of law will be upheld. New head of the Pacific Island Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, has likewise expressed concern but dismissed the notion that the regional body will take action.

These claims and counter claims have emerged against the backdrop of an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the management and operation of the asylum seeker detention facility on Nauru, including the safety of children and their families from alleged sexual abuse and criminal conduct.

FSM – Elections to shape the future of the federation

On March 3 2015 the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia went to the polls to elect the 19th Congress. FSM spans an enormous ocean territory and so the logistics of conducting a ballot that includes large overseas communities in Guam, Hawaii and the mainland United States makes this an incredible undertaking. The official result has taken time to trickle through but, as usual, most of the fourteen seats were hotly contested.

The key issue for the campaign was a proposal by the Chuuk Political Status Commission to include in the ballot a vote for Chuukese independence. In effect, it would have set the wheels in motion for Chuuk to become a country in its own right. The motivations for this proposed breakaway movement are complex and deeply felt (Fran Hezel, long-time observer of Micronesian politics, has provided his views here). Ultimately, the proposed vote was removed from the ballot a week before the election to allow more time for voters to consider the issue. But, the matter will cast a long shadow over the deliberations of the 19th Congress and the choice of President in particular.

FSM has a unique federal system that reflects the history of its founding from the remnants of the United State Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (some of my other posts on this can be found here). The fourteen congressional seats are divided between the four states: Chuuk, the largest and most populous state elects six members. Pohnphei, the seat of the national capital elects four. The smaller states of Yap and Kosrae elect two each. Things get more complicated, however, as there are two types of seats, with each state electing one member for a four-year term and the others for two-year terms. Aside from longer tenure, those elected to four year ‘at large’ seats are also eligible for nomination to the Presidency.

There are no political parties in FSM and so the key to the Presidency is the voting blocks of each state. Indeed, many of the provisions in the FSM constitution were designed to counter the potential dominance of the Chuukese representatives. So, the Chuukese ‘at large’ Senator requires the votes of at least one other state to become president. Or, the other three states have to join together to elect a candidate from among their number.

The Presidency of FSM has been held for the last two-terms by Manny Mori, a Chuukese representative. But, a constitutionally mandated term limit means that FSM will have a new President in 2015. Exactly who that might be is unclear. Mori’s Vice President, Alik Alik, contested the ‘at large seat’ for Kosrae. Veteran Senator Peter Christian is the favourite for Pohnpei and former Senator Joseph Urusemal will be elected unopposed in Yap. The two candidates for Chuuk are Wesley Simina, the incumbent, and Gillian Doone.

The future of the union and the Chuukese independence movement are likely to be a key consideration for the newly elected Senators when they come to decide on who will become president. By convention, senior positions – presidency, vice presidency, speaker – have been shared between the states. But, would a return to the presidency assuage Chuukese grievances? Would a Pohnpeian presidency inflame them? Or, in the current climate, is a compromise candidate from Yap or Kosrae the best course? All of these questions and more will be on the table ahead of the first meeting of the new Congress on May 11 2015. The stakes are always high with these decisions – careers, reputations and of course national development policies are on the line – but this time around the possibility of secession means they assume greater than usual importance.

Kiribati – What does it take to become President?

2015 shapes as an important year in Kiribati politics as it will be the last of current President Anote Tong’s tenure in office. First elected Beretitenti [President] in 2003, Tong has served the maximum three terms allowed for under the Kiribati constitution and so he cannot contest the next ballot. Taking up where I left off in this post about the profile of Presidents in FSM, here I look back at the people who have been President in Kiribati and cast my eye over possible contenders for the top job this time around.

As outlined here, Kiribati is somewhat unique among Pacific Island countries in that it has enjoyed relative political stability since independence in 1979. There have only been four Heads of Government, for example, which is a marked contrast to other Pacific countries, especially in neighboring Tuvalu or Melanesia. Like nearby Marshall Islands and Nauru, the President of Kiribati is both Head of State and Head of Government. One distinguishing feature is its two-round runoff electoral system in which the Parliament nominates up to four of its members after each election to contest a nation-wide ballot for the Presidency.

All four Presidents of Kiribati are currently still Members of Parliament (MP), although, as I will discuss further below, this may well change at the next election. The first President, Sir Ieremia Tabai, was New Zealand educated and took the country to independence at just 29 years old. On the completion of his three terms his Vice President, Teatao Teannaki was elected, although some commentators believed that Tabai continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes before and after his appointment as Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 1992. Teannaki, who incidentally is much older than the other three (he was born in 1936 whereas the others were born in the early 1950s), was educated in the UK and only served one term as President. His successor, Teburoro Tito, was educated in Fiji and came from the opposite side of politics to Tabai and Teannaki (although the membership of parliamentary coalitions is fluid in Kiribati). He is also the only one of the four to be elected from a Tarawa constituency. Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati and is home to around 50% of the population. Tito was eventually defeated in a no-confidence motion, which led to the election of Tong in 2003 after a brief caretaker period. Educated in the UK, Tong has been especially vocal on climate change issues during his Presidency, which has led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

While the sample is obviosuly tiny, many of the patterns identified in the FSM post are also apparent in Kiribati. Presidents tend to be male, overseas educated from professional backgrounds, which means that even if they are not born in Tarawa they have spent most of their lives living there or overseas. It also means that they have the financial resources to compete in election campaigns. Campaigning is increasingly expensive in Pacific Island countries and the two-round runoff system means that prospective Presidents have to fund both an initial parliamentary contest and then a later nation-wide Presidential campaign. Kiribati is a geographically large country (21 inhabited islands spread across more than 3 million kilometers of ocean) and so having a national profile, often developed by performance in parliamentary debates that are widely broadcast on radio, helps. The backing of local members from each of Kiribati’s atoll constituencies is also important.

Keeping that in mind, who might vie for the top job this time around? The fluid nature of Kiribati politics makes any outcome hard to predict but we might expect that the two losers in the last Presidential campaign, Dr. Tetaua Taitai and Rimeta Beniamina, might contest again. Taitai heads up the main opposition party, of which Tito is a member, while Beniamina is a former government MP but is now leader of his own party. Taitai, who was born in 1947, is of the Tabai/Tito generation whereas Beniamina, who was born in 1960, would represent a changing of the guard. This shift would be especially significant if other independence generation politicians like Tabai, Tito and Teannaki chose to step down or lost at the next election. The current Vice President, Teima Onorio, is another possibility. Hers would be a remarkable result, however, as no women has ever been elected Head of State in the independent Pacific. For this and other reasons her candidacy is unlikely.

No doubt others will emerge throughout 2015. What makes the outcome so difficult to predict, however, is that candidates and their supporters must first win their constituency seats and in a country where political parties have little bearing on voter preferences – family and church allegiances are more important – this is not an insignificant hurdle.

New Caledonia – French President Says Territory Must Set Referendum Date by 2018

The recent G20 meeting saw a number of the world’s most powerful presidents descend on Brisbane, Australia. Proximity meant that some also took the opportunity to conduct rare state visits to the Pacific Islands. President of China, Xi Jinping, visited Fiji, for example, while the French president, Francois Hollande, visited New Caledonia (also called Kanaky by pro-independence nationalists). Indeed, while the presence of some of the world’s most high profile political leaders in the Pacific is an occasional occurrence, the visit of French presidents is relatively more common. The reason is that France retains three overseas territories in the Pacific (French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia) and the 1998 Noumea Accord stipulates that New Caledonia must hold a referendum on its future political status before 2018.

New Caledonia’s political status is a deeply felt and historically charged issue. The French first arrived in New Caledonia in the late 18th century. They took formal possession in 1853 and as a result New Caledonia essentially became a penal colony. A cycle of rebellion and domination ensued. In the mid 20th century New Caledonia’s political status began to evolve and it became an overseas territory of France. New Caledonian residents vote in the French presidential elections and elect two members to the French Senate and National Assembly respectively.[1] Despite being 20,000 miles away, France’s integration into the EU means they can also vote in elections for the European Parliament (although turnout has been historically low). [2]

In the 1970s an independence movement emerged among New Caledonia’s indigenous ‘Kanak’ population. The Front de Liberation Natiaonle Kanak et Socialiste or Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front was formed during this period. In response, the French government encouraged migration to the territory, ensuring the Kanak population is a minority. Previously devolved powers were rolled back. The 1960s and 1970s also saw the height of a Nickel boom in New Caledonia.

The 1980s saw a period of secessionist unrest that resulted in violent clashes between pro-independence supporters and French loyalists. Blood was shed on both sides. The conflict led to a series of negotiations and agreements, culminating in the 1998 Noumea Accord that initiated ‘shared sovereignty’, a 20-year maximum timeline for a referendum on future political status, and the transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea. The Noumea Accord is enshrined in the French National constitution and more than one hundred organic laws were passed in Paris to implement it.[3] Key institutional features included three provincial assemblies, a Congress, a multi-party executive government and a customary Kanak Senate. [4] It has since brought relative peace and prosperity.

On 11 May 2014 New Caledonia elected its fourth and final Congress under the Noumea Accord (the Congress operates along parliamentary lines and elects a president of government). It subsequently decided by a 3/5 majority to proceed with the referendum process.[5] This was despite the fact that pro-France groups retain a majority in Congress (pro-independence groups won more votes than ever before). However, tensions have been high with several violent incidents this year that are said to have contributed to the resignation of the most senior French government official in July.[6] Several local politicians have reportedly attempted to draw up a new accord and defer a vote. And, thousands of people joined a march in central Noumea during Hollande’s visit to show their wish to stay French.

Despite this, Hollande’s message was reportedly clear: should the Congress fail to set a date by 2017, France will organise the plebiscite in order to comply with the changes made to the French constitution. At this stage he will leave the decision about a date to the New Caledonian people but he left little doubt that, notwithstanding the events of two decades ago and the possibility that they might reoccur, he saw no alternative but to follow the timetable contained in the 1998 Noumea Accord.

[1] Nic Maclellan (2005) From Eloi to Europe: Interactions with the ballot box in New Caledonia, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 43(3): 394-418

[2] Nic Maclellan (2005) From Eloi to Europe: Interactions with the ballot box in New Caledonia, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 43(3): 413

[3] David Chappell (2013) “Recent Challenges to Nation-Building in Kanaky New Caledonia” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 1. Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

[4] Nic Maclellan (2005) From Eloi to Europe: Interactions with the ballot box in New Caledonia, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 43(3): 395

[5] Denise Fisher (2014) “Tjibaou’s Kanak: Ethnic Identity as New Caledonia Prepares its Future” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 4. Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

[6] Denise Fisher (2014) “Tjibaou’s Kanak: Ethnic Identity as New Caledonia Prepares its Future” State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 4. Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.