Author Archives: Kerryn Baker

Papua New Guinea – The Prospects of Presidentialism

The 2017 Papua New Guinea general election threw the complexities and challenges of democracy in the country into stark relief. Papua New Guinea’s elections are purportedly the most expensive per capita in the world; it is estimated that the 2012 election cost $US63 per voter, compared to a global average of $US5 per voter. The 2017 election was marred by widespread issues with the electoral roll, violent clashes, and long delays in counting for some seats. After polling wraps, ‘the election after the election’ begins; in a fragmented party system with a high number of independent MPs, governing coalitions are typically made up of large and often unwieldy numbers of parties. Ultimately, Peter O’Neill’s ‘grand coalition’ – made up of members of his People’s National Congress Party as well as various minor parties and independent MPs – managed to secure 60 votes to re-elect him Prime Minister. This contributes to a system which Ron May describes as “disorderly democracy”, and Jeffrey Steeves has called (in the Solomon Islands context) “unbounded politics”.

Papua New Guinea has a Westminster parliamentary system, inherited after independence from Australia in 1975. Westminster systems are common in the Pacific Islands region; of the 18 Pacific Islands Forum states (including Australia and New Zealand), half have Westminster systems, with presidential (or hybrid presidential) more common in the northern Pacific where the US influence is more apparent. The merits of Westminster systems in the Pacific – and specifically Papua New Guinea – have been debated at length. Westminster parliamentary traditions and Melanesian political cultures are seen by some scholars as incompatible: the combative nature of Westminster politics at odds with Melanesian traditions of consensus; the lack of a left-right political cleavage creating a fragmented party system and reducing the accountability function of a strong opposition; and geographically based political constituencies entrenching ethnic and cultural divides. Reform attempts, most notably the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC), have largely focused on strengthening the party system and reducing the frequency of changes of government, to limited effect. It has been argued by May that Papua New Guinea’s weak and fragmented party system, previously the cause of frequent government turnover, has now facilitated the rise of ‘executive government’, in which the executive exercises near-absolute power in the absence of both a strong parliamentary opposition and stringent accountability measures.

A presidential system for Papua New Guinea has been proposed in the past, notably by Governor of the National Capital District and leader of the Social Democratic Party, Powes Parkop. A presidential system has already been adopted at sub-national level in Papua New Guinea, in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, where a president is directly elected for five-year terms. Creating an executive branch separate to the legislative branch would distinguish national-level policy-making from the district-level service delivery function that current Papua New Guinea MPs tend to prioritise (and for good reason, as it is crucial to their chances of re-election). Furthermore, presidential elections would in theory focus on national policy over local interests, the former oft-cited as missing from parliamentary elections. The PNC-led government has already proven itself committed to decentralisation, and in a context with more provincial autonomy a presidential system could prove to be a national unifier. Yet a presidential system would of course not solve the issue of executive dominance as identified by May and others, and indeed has the potential to exacerbate it.

So is a presidential system the answer? A change to a presidential system would not be a panacea to Papua New Guinea’s political challenges, and could potentially give rise to other problems. Yet, in a discussion on Papua New Guinea’s political future, it is a question worth asking. The Pacific region provides potential models for political reform, including Kiribati’s hybrid system in which a directly elected president is still subject to votes of no confidence by the legislature (but a successful vote of no confidence automatically dissolves the House, creating a disincentive to overuse). As other aspects of constitutional reform, including around decentralisation and guaranteed women’s political representation, have already been raised by the Papua New Guinea government, there is potential space for debate on the structure of the political system itself.

France – The 2017 Presidential Election in the French Pacific Territories

Delivering a speech in French Polynesia during a visit to the French Pacific territories last year, outgoing President François Hollande said: “France is everywhere in the world. And when they say we go to the end of the world, I say: ‘No. We go to the end of France’.” France’s global footprint due to its overseas territories is extensive – les départements et collectivités d’outre-mer, as they are known, give France a presence in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Geographically remote and with relatively small populations, France’s overseas territories are often ignored in presidential elections, but the recent unrest in Guiana has brought them to the fore this year.

The three Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna – have a combined population of under 600,000, less than 1% of the total French population. Residents of the territories have full French citizenship, including the right to vote in French presidential (as well as European) elections, and each territory elects representatives to the French National Assembly and Senate. In French presidential elections, there is traditionally low turnout in the overseas territories. The French Pacific is no exception; French Polynesia recorded turnouts in 2012 of just 49% in round one and 59% in round two. Low turnout is perhaps to be expected given the geographical distance involved, although the most remote territory, Wallis and Futuna, usually records the highest turnout. Another factor is the deliberate boycotting of presidential elections by pro-independence groups in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Independence remains a very salient issue in the French Pacific in this year’s presidential election, with a referendum on independence scheduled to be held in New Caledonia in 2018. Anti-independence groups in New Caledonia generally align themselves with the major French conservative party (now The Republicans), while those pro-independence groups that do involve themselves with French politics tend to back the Socialist Party, in the belief that they are more sympathetic to the secessionist cause. While Nicolas Sarkozy – with a notoriously anti-independence stance in regards to New Caledonia – won significant support in the first round conservative primary there, François Fillon still won far more support in New Caledonia during the primaries than in the other French territories, winning 78% of the second-round vote in New Caledonia (Fillon lost in both Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, in the latter winning just a 5% share in the first round). After the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal which has threatened to sink his candidacy, several key political figures of the right in New Caledonia withdrew their support for Fillon, but others have rallied behind the candidate.

This is important, as the success or failure of French presidential aspirants in the territories often says more about local politics than national politics. The endorsements of local political leaders are often crucial to the outcome – which is watched closely by observers for what it says about the popularity of these local figures, rather than the candidates themselves. For example, in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Hilarion Vendegou – chief, local mayor, and a New Caledonian representative in the French Senate – endorsed Fillon in the primaries who went on to win both rounds in the locality easily.

In French Polynesia, there has been much horse-trading amongst political leaders on who to support. Gaston Flosse – a dominant figure in French Polynesian politics for over 30 years, now barred from holding public office until 2019 due to a conviction for corruption – initially supported Sarkozy, then Fillon, before eventually endorsing Marine Le Pen. Claiming this was on the basis of her support for greater autonomy for French Polynesia, he stressed this was not an endorsement of her party, but rather her as an individual. Eduoard Fritch – current President of French Polynesia, and Flosse’s former son-in-law and protégé – initially supported Alain Juppé, and has now backed Fillon despite voicing criticism of his plans to cut public service spending and vagueness on territorial issues (Fillon has said the cuts will not affect overseas territories).

Meanwhile, former French Polynesian President and the most prominent pro-independence figure in the territory, Oscar Temaru, attempted to stand in the presidential election to raise awareness of the pro-independence cause in French Polynesia. While he did not reach the threshold of endorsements needed to run, he gained the most support from elected officials in both French Polynesia and New Caledonia of any aspiring candidate. After failing to secure enough support to run, he advised his supporters to boycott the election.

Of course, neither of the two highest-polling candidates going into the first round of polling are candidates from the two major political parties, meaning the political landscape – and what this means for the French Pacific – is uncharted territory. Le Pen visited the Pacific in 2013, and has voiced support for greater territorial autonomy and compensation for nuclear testing, as well as promising a greater focus on territorial issues. The National Front’s deputy leader visited the Pacific in December 2016 and promised to respect the provisions for an independence referendum for New Caledonia under the 1998 Noumea Accord. More recently, Le Pen has responded to the protests in Guiana, emphasising her key campaign messages on law and order, security and immigration. While the party has made a concerted effort to attract voters from the territories in this election, they have historically polled far lower in the Pacific territories than in mainland France (although significantly higher in New Caledonia than in either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna).

Macron’s understanding of territorial issues has seemed shaky at times; in March, he wrongly referred to Guiana as an “island”. On recent visits to the territories of Réunion and Mayotte he has, however, promised subsidised airfares to increase links between the territories and mainland France, as well as an ambitious economic development plan. His position on New Caledonia’s political future is unclear; as Philippe Gomès, former President of New Caledonia and current representative in the French National Assembly,has said: “We do not really know his DNA.”

Whoever wins the 2017 presidential election will play a key role in determining future political statuses in the French Pacific. They will have to deal with the impending referendum on independence in New Caledonia as well as calls for greater autonomy intensifying in French Polynesia. Thus, the ramifications of the 2017 vote will extend right to the end of the France.

Palau – Women’s Representation and the Presidential Primary

On 29 September, Palau held its presidential primary race to determine which two candidates will face off against each other when the country goes to the polls on 1 November. Four candidates contested the primary election: incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Jr.; incumbent Vice-President Antonio Bells; former Vice-President and incumbent Senator Sandra Pierantozzi; and incumbent Senator Surangel Whipps Jr. In the primary, favourite Remengesau led with 49 per cent of votes cast, followed by Whipps with 39 per cent; Pierantozzi and Bells were eliminated.

With two challengers eliminated, the presidential contest is now between two brothers-in-law, as Whipps is married to Remengeseau’s sister. Remengeseau noted that it was unusual for such close relatives to be contesting against each other: “It’s certainly not in our culture, and it’s very unusual because if you follow our culture you are not supposed to be running against a family member.” Yet, while it may be unusual, it is certainly not unprecedented. Pierantozzi initially won the vice-presidency after contesting against her nephew, and commentator Bernadette Carreon noted its inevitability in small island politics: “It’s a small nation, everyone is related to each other, so I think it’s just the way it is.” Going into the 1 November election having collected around half of the primary votes cast, Remengesau appears the favourite to win.

This year has been a milestone for women’s political representation in Micronesia and the wider Pacific. In January, Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands became the first female head of government in the Pacific Islands region when she won the presidency. In March, long-serving member of the Samoan Parliament Fiame Naomi Mata’afa became the country’s (and Polynesia’s) first female Deputy Prime Minister. Palau is at the bottom of the world’s league table in terms of women’s representation, with no women in its lower house, although there are three female Senators in its upper house.

The 2016 primary election marked the second attempt at the presidency for Pierantozzi, who came third in the 2012 primary with 18 per cent of the vote. She is a well-known figure in Palauan politics, having previously served as Vice-President from 2001 to 2005. In her 2016 presidential bid, Pierantozzi highlighted economic growth as a key election issue. She also stressed the importance of increasing the number of women in Palau politics. While the presidential election will be an all-male affair – Pierantozzi again came third, although her vote share of 9 per cent was half of what she had received in 2012 – she was hopeful of women’s representation increasing in November in the House and Senate. Women make up a quarter of the 24 candidates contesting for the 13-seat Senate, and among the 33 candidates for the 16 House of Delegates seats, there are six women contesting five seats (including one running unopposed). While the highest glass ceiling for women in Palau won’t be cracked at this election, there is promise that the Senate and House of Delegates contests will result in real gains for women’s representation in the country.

Stewart Firth – Nauru: The Retreat from Democracy and the Coming Election

This is a guest post by Stewart Firth, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Since the election of Nauru’s latest President, Baron Waqa, in 2013, democracy and the rule of law in that country have been under threat. The new government moved quickly to remove key members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, who was not permitted to re-enter the country after foreign travel. A crackdown on media freedom followed, with foreign journalists effectively excluded by a prohibitive visa fee of US$5,000, and a ban placed on Facebook in order to check criticism of the government. An amendment to the criminal code in 2015 makes the expression of ‘political hatred’, that is to say, disagreement with the government, an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

As previously reported on Presidential Power, three opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament for ‘talking too much to foreign media’ and bringing their country into disrepute. Since then a further two opposition MPs in the Parliament of 19 have been permanently suspended, leaving a rump of 12 to conduct Nauru’s business. As the 2016 election approaches, the Nauru government is using Parliament to suppress candidature: public servants must now resign three months before the election, and the fee for standing as a candidate has jumped from US$74 to US$1,500.

This creeping authoritarianism has little to do, however, with the institution of the Presidency in Nauru. The Nauru Presidency is a Westminster phenomenon, and the President resembles a prime minister. Under Article 16, 2 of the Nauru constitution, ‘A person is not qualified to be elected President unless he is a member of Parliament.’ Parliament elects the President of Nauru after each election, he or she sits in a Cabinet that is formed from Parliament and is collectively responsible to it, and may be removed along with other ministers on a vote of no confidence.

What has mattered in recent years in Nauru has been the Cabinet, not the President. In fact most observers think the author of Nauru’s retreat from democracy is not President Waqa but instead his Justice Minister David Adeang. Nauru hosts Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre, and Adeang has seized the opportunity created by Australia’s dependence on his country to amass power and suppress dissent, secure in the knowledge that Canberra will offer little criticism. New Zealand has suspended much of its aid to Nauru in protest. Australia has not.

Ben Graham – Marshall Islands Elections: Big Turnover, but Bigger Challenges Ahead

This is a guest post by Ben Graham.

National elections in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in November delivered unprecedented results, with many of the 33 Nitijela (parliament) members, including some veteran politicians, losing their seats to mostly younger political novices. Unofficial results, which include postal votes from Marshallese in the US, suggest that one-third of Nitijela is out, much higher turnover than in prior elections. Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, says that voters were eager for change, with the results signaling a major political shift now underway.

Most of the newcomers are in their 40s and were popular candidates among younger voters, many of whom now use social media to express their views on key issues. The new Nitijela will also have three female members—there has never been more than one.

When it reconvenes in January, the Nitijela’s first order of business will be to select a President from among its members. Several older parliamentarians, including the incumbent President Christopher Loeak, will be jockeying for the post. But with no real political parties, no formal political platforms or agendas, and such a large number of newcomers, it is uncertain who will form the government.

The small country faces very big challenges, with climate change and economic development the most pressing. Made up entirely of low-lying coral atolls and islands, the nation faces the real possibility of extinction—even within several decades—if the worst-case sea-level rise scenarios play out. Economic assistance from the US is decrementing and set to discontinue after 2023, putting pressure on government to grow the economy and mobilize new resources. This is a struggle, despite some growth in revenues from the fishing industry. Government is also trying to accelerate contributions into a trust fund it established with the US in 2004, which should help ease the post-2023 transition, but this too has been difficult given sluggish economic and fiscal conditions.

The challenges go well beyond climate change and economics. Underperformance in healthcare, education, transportation, and environmental management, and weak financial management and control of corruption, altogether highlight the need for more responsive and effective leadership. These were among the key issues surrounding the election.
Meanwhile, thousands of citizens continue to vote with their feet. Slow development progress has led to high outmigration, with entire families reluctantly leaving the islands in search of better schools, healthcare, and jobs in the US. The population has now levelled off at just under 60,000 while around 30,000 now call the US home. The 2011 census showed a clear pattern of depopulation on many atolls.

While a new national development plan and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals provide some guidance for government, it remains to be seen whether these plans will be effectively implemented, or whether a set-it and forget-it approach (as some locals call it) will prevail. There is some optimism that the new leaders will bring a renewed sense of energy and direction, but this is highly cautious optimism.

One thing is certain: the Marshall Islands’ leaders, old and new, will certainly have their work cut out for them.

Ben Graham is a former consultant and advisor in the Marshall Islands. He is from Majuro Atoll.

Vanuatu – President calls snap election amid bribery scandal

JACK CORBETT & KERRYN BAKER

For the past few months the tiny island nation of Vanuatu has been gripped by a bribery scandal that has ultimately led to 14 of 50 MPs – all from the government side – facing lengthy prison time after being convicted under both the leadership and penal codes (another MP received a suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty). As a result, Vanuatu’s President, Baldwin Lonsdale, has dissolved the country’s parliament and called a snap election. The bribery case revolves around payments made by the Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses to his fellow MPs during 2014, when they were all members of the opposition. Carcasses claimed that the payments were for development purposes but the court decided otherwise.

At the root of this scandal is the perpetual “vote of no-confidence” issue that has bedevilled Pacific Island governments since independence. As previously outlined on this blog, most Pacific Island democracies are renowned for having weak or non-existent party systems. Instead, politicians rise and fall on the strength of their own personal appeal. A number of factors are important for prospective MPs seeking to generate the profile and reputation to win an election in Vanuatu, including family alliances, churches and community involvement. But, increasingly money politics is crucial. As a result, getting elected in Vanuatu can be incredibly expensive.

For prospective Prime Ministers, however, getting elected is just the start. In the absence of strong parties the leader who can cobble together a coalition forms government. Typically, this coalition building process, both in Vanuatu and across the Pacific region sees considerable amounts of money change hands with MPs either recuperating their campaign costs or stockpiling funds for next time around. Once installed, however, coalitions are precarious. The choice of only a few MPs to switch sides can topple a government. Money becomes an important means of inducing MPs to either stay or go.

This game has been going on for years. What makes this case so interesting is that it is the first time these practices have been subject to legal scrutiny. One observer noted: “Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the current case is the fact that it was prosecuted in the first place.” It marked the first occasion that politicians had been tried under the Leadership Code Act. Among the convicted were numerous high-profile figures: several Cabinet Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, as well as the Speaker of the House.

The bribery case and its outcome have also prompted several tests of the limits of presidential power. 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 the powers granted to him in this position to pardon himself and his 13 co-defendants. These pardons were revoked by Lonsdale, a move that was then appealed, and upheld. Then, on 24 November, Lonsdale dissolved Parliament and called a snap election. The opposition has challenged the legal basis of the dissolution, and this case will be heard in the coming days. Whatever the outcome of this challenge in the courts, what is clear is that the bribery case is a landmark event for Vanuatu. The convictions have sent a clear message to political players and may have long-term ramifications for Vanuatu politics.

Bougainville – Momis re-elected President in lead-up to referendum on independence

John Momis has been re-elected President of Bougainville after elections held in the region last month. It will be the second term as president for the former Catholic priest and long-time figure of Papua New Guinean politics. Momis will head the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) as they move towards a significant milestone for the region – the upcoming independence election, which must be held in the five-year window that begins this month.

In a political environment where incumbent turnover is traditionally very high – in the legislative elections that were held at the same time as the presidential election, the turnover rate was 64 per cent – Momis saw off a field of eight other presidential contenders. Throughout the counting period, his lead looked secure and the final tally saw him over 30,000 votes ahead of his nearest competition, ex-Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) commander Ismael Toroama. Another ex-BRA candidate, Sam Kauona, placed third.

The referendum on independence was a prominent issue during the presidential election campaign. Yet while several presidential candidates notably used pro-independence rhetoric in their campaigns, the focus during much of the campaign was on the process of the referendum, rather than the outcome. In addressing the referendum issue during the campaign period, Momis emphasised his leadership record and framed himself as an experienced politician who was well-placed to lead Bougainville through the process towards referendum. His emphatic win, as well as public endorsements from unlikely quarters – including leaders of the Me’ekamui, a separatist group who in the past have refused to engage with the ABG – suggest that this tactic was successful.

Now that he has been elected for another five-year term, Momis faces several potentially contentious issues. There have been allegations of electoral fraud from some unsuccessful candidates, with legal action threatened. Furthermore, the possible re-opening of the Panguna mine remains a controversial topic. Formerly the largest open pit copper mine in the world, the Panguna site was closed in 1989 during the crisis. Shortly before the election, a new Mining Act was passed to regulate future mining activities, and in one of his first public statements after re-election Momis affirmed his intention to initiate talks with mining companies about the re-opening of the Panguna mine.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the referendum. According to the Bougainville Peace Agreement, it must be held before June 2020, subject to certain conditions relating to weapons disposal and good governance. The agreement also stipulates that the exact date must be decided by the ABG in consultation with the Government of Papua New Guinea, and – crucially – that the outcome of the referendum must be ratified by the Parliament of Papua New Guinea.

A diplomatic incident that occurred during the election period highlights the sensitivities around Bougainville’s current and future political status. In mid-May, an announcement by the Australian Government that they planned to open a diplomatic mission in Bougainville’s capital, Buka, caused outrage in Port Moresby. The Government of Papua New Guinea maintained that they had not been consulted over the plan. They responded by issuing a ban on Australians travelling to Bougainville on business or tourist short-term visas. The dispute was ultimately resolved after two weeks, with the Government of Papua New Guinea lifting the travel ban while claiming the diplomatic mission would not be opened.

Speaking publicly during the dispute in his role as caretaker President at the time, Momis characterised the ban on Australian travellers as “a breach of the spirit of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.” He called on both parties to work towards a resolution “so that the difficult task of managing the process of the referendum as well as the outcome of the referendum will be handled by all parties in a spirit of collaboration.” As Bougainville’s President for the next five years, he will have the leading role in that “difficult task”.

The 2015 Bougainville election – The presidential race

The presidential election campaign is currently underway in Bougainville, where polling for the third Autonomous Bougainville Government general election will begin on 11 May. The 2015 election marks the beginning of a five-year window in which the referendum on independence will be held, according to the Bougainville Peace Agreement. The presidential candidate who is elected will play a crucial role in the coming years as the future political status of the region is determined. There are nine candidates for the presidency.

One of those contesting is John Momis, the incumbent President. Momis has long been a prominent figure in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville politics. A former Catholic priest, he was instrumental in the writing of the PNG Constitution and was at one point Deputy Prime Minister. After losing the first Bougainville presidential election in 2005, Momis decisively won in 2010.

Momis, along with fellow candidates Ismael Toroama and Sam Akoitai, have run sustained and highly visible campaigns in the Northern region of Bougainville. Toroama was a commander in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) during the conflict, and is campaigning against other well-known pro-independence figures including Sam Kauona and Reuben Siara. He is from Central Region, where most (two-thirds) of the presidential candidates hail from. Akoitai was a leader in the Resistance (anti-BRA) movement during the 1990s. He came second in the 2008 presidential race, which was triggered by the death of Bougainville’s first President, Joseph Kabui. While he is from a younger generation than Momis, Akoitai too has extensive experience in politics at the national level. As the PNG Minister for Bougainville Affairs in the late 1990s, he was notably involved in the peace agreement negotiations. Other presidential candidates have also made their presence known in the Northern region, with many posters and banners displayed in Buka’s town centre, including those of Kauona and former Speaker Nick Peniai.

Both Momis and Akoitai head parties with organisational capacity, in a political context characterised in part by weak party structures. Along with the presidency, elections are also being held for the 33 open seats, three seats reserved for women and three seats reserved for ex-combatants in the House of Representatives. Momis founded the New Bougainville Party (NBP). There are many incumbent members in the NBP’s field of candidates for the legislative elections. Akoitai’s Bougainville Islands Unity Party (BIUP) has endorsed over 60 candidates in the open and reserved seats.

The upcoming referendum on independence is a key issue in the election campaign. Toroama’s campaign rhetoric is overtly pro-independence. Kauona’s campaign includes calls for “liberation” and a “peaceful process”. Momis and Akoitai both present themselves as experienced political operators committed to guiding Bougainville through the referendum process. Momis’s tagline is “honest and credible leadership”, while Akoitai’s slogan – also used by other BIUP candidates – is “it’s time to unite”.

This general election is to be the last before the referendum. While it must be held before June 2020, the exact dates and the wording are still to be determined, and the incoming President will have a significant role in making these decisions. Who will assume this responsibility remains to be seen, with a two-week polling period soon to begin, and results expected in early June.

New Caledonia – As Pro-France Unity Disintegrates, What Next for New Caledonian Politics in the Lead-Up to the Independence Referendum?

The election of June 2014 set the stage for the upcoming independence referendum, due to take place in the next three years. The subsequent collapse of the Government six months later put on display the deep divisions amongst the pro-France political parties, who according to one pro-independence politician “apart from wanting to stay with France…cannot agree on anything.”[1] After the fall of the Ligeard Government, subsequent attempts to re-elect an administration have failed. Cynthia Ligeard, leader of the pro-France party Front pour l’Unité (FPU) and New Caledonia’s second female President, has continued in a caretaker capacity since her government fell in mid-December.

In New Caledonia, power-sharing provisions are in place to ensure multiple parties are represented in the Government. Crucially, any party’s resignation from the Government triggers its fall. Neither the Government nor Congress has the power to call a new election; that lies with the French High Commission, which has shown its unwillingness to call fresh elections in the way it dealt with a previous crisis in 2011.

New Caledonia is a divided society, with residents split between those favouring independence – primarily the indigenous Kanak community, who make up about 40 per cent of the population – and those who advocate remaining part of France – mainly the caldoche (New Caledonian-born residents of French descent) and French-born migrants. A protracted struggle for self-determination led to a peace agreement, signed in the late 1980s, that guaranteed a future referendum on independence. The Noumea Accord, signed in 1998, delayed the referendum by 15-20 years. This means that, in the absence of another agreement to again delay the referendum, the independence question will be decided by 2018.

The Accord also granted New Caledonia a unique political status in the French Constitution, and established new political institutions: three provincial assemblies and a Congress. Elections are held every five years. The members of the Government are elected by Congress according to the proportion of seats held by each party; the Government then elects a President and Vice-President.[2]

Historically, the primary political cleavage in New Caledonia has been over the issue of independence. The power-sharing mechanisms set out in the Noumea Accord are intended to promote collegiality and cooperation between the two sides of the debate, although resignations have happened before, most significantly in 2011. That crisis was prompted when the French Government, on advice from the pro-France politician Pierre Frogier, mandated that the Kanak flag be flown alongside the French flag on municipal buildings in New Caledonia. This move spurred protests from both side of politics, amongst those who supported a new flag to represent New Caledonia, and when some municipalities refused to fly the Kanak flag, pro-independence party Union Calédonienne (UC) resigned from Government in protest. In response, pro-France party Calédonie Ensemble (CE) countered with another resignation to bring down the next government formed. Two more governments fell before the crisis was resolved.[3]

In response to these events, the French Government passed legislation in its National Assembly to prevent similar crises in New Caledonia. It introduced an 18-month grace period for any Government elected following a Cabinet resignation. The move eliminated the threat of tit-for-tat resignations.

Which brings us to December 2014, when the Ligeard government fell. The resignation of the CE delegation was triggered by a debate over fiscal policy, but is emblematic of the deep divides within the pro-France side of politics. The influence of the RPCR (Rassemblement pour une Calédonie dans la Republique, which renamed itself the R-UMP in 2002), the predominant party in pro-France politics since the 1970s, has been on the wane for some time, and their loss of the presidency in 2004 to breakaway group Avenir Ensemble (AE) was a significant turning point in New Caledonian politics. The other side of politics has also seen splintering amongst its factions, with multiple lists of pro-independence parties competing against each other in each post-Noumea Accord election.

The current political crisis is evident of a shift in New Caledonian politics. Firstly, while the independence question remains salient, it is not enough to hold the pro-France factions together to dominate territorial politics, with conflicts arising amongst the new, post-RPCR generation of politicians. Secondly, the changes made following the 2011 crisis have made the next decision on the presidency critical – and perhaps impossible. While the French administration had hoped the 18-month grace period would prevent political crises from occurring, in this case it has stalled the process of electing the resignation-proof new President. A nominee needs six votes in the 11-seat Government to win. The three pro-France parties represented in the Government hold six seats in total; the remaining five seats are occupied by pro-independence politicians who have been abstaining from the presidential votes, content to watch the pro-France factions fight amongst themselves.

With the current political crisis dragging on, a coalition with the pro-independence side seems like the way out of political deadlock for either the FPU or the CE. With five seats in Government, however, the pro-independence side holds significant power in this scenario. Resolution of this crisis may see, in the lead-up to the referendum on independence, a first for New Caledonia – a pro-independence President.

[1] Radio New Zealand International, ‘Blame game over New Caledonia government collapse’, 17 December 2014, www.radionz.co.nz/international

[2] Nic Maclellan (2009) ‘New Caledonia’, in Stephen Levine (ed.), Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, Wellington: Victoria University Press, pp. 130-140.

[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.