NOUMEA, (RNZ PACIFIC) — New Caledonia will have its second referendum on independence from France this Sunday amid expectation of a final showdown to come in two years.
Although opinion polls were commissioned no results have been published.
The rhetoric of recent weeks however doesn’t suggest that the status-quo will be upended – just yet.
All along the campaign has involved a glance towards 2022 when a third and final referendum is likely to be called to wrap up a decolonisation process sought by the indigenous Kanak people.
Should voters again reject independence, it only takes a third of members of Congress to request the third and final plebiscite guaranteed under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord.
Yet anti-independence proponents already call for New Caledonia’s formal re-integration into France under a new statute while Kanak leaders insist that independence can no longer be denied.
For them the territory is ready to go it alone, having been on the United Nations decolonisation list since 1986.
Sunday’s vote will give both sides an accurate figure of their support but leaves unanswered the question how they will accommodate each other and shape the common destiny at the heart of the Noumea Accord.
During the troubles of the 1980s, which risked blowing up into a separatist war, a first referendum on independence was called in 1987 but it was boycotted by the FLNKS.
Although more than 98 percent voted against independence, the result failed to quell the aspirations of the pro-independence Kanak nationalists.
It wasn’t until a spike in violence ended the 1988 Ouvea hostage crisis that the two rival camps forged a truce which was enshrined in the Matignon Accords.
Under the auspices of the French government a 10-year deal was struck which delayed another independence vote until 1998.
However, fearing a possible flare-up of the troubles, the independence question was buried by adopting the 1998 Noumea Accord which is the current framework defining the territory’s governance.
When it was signed in 1998, it was a tri-partite deal involving the French state, the anti-independence RPCR and the pro-independence FLNKS movement.
The Accord kept being discussed in Paris almost annually with a cast of politicians which over time changed and which gradually splintered, in particular on the side of those wanting to stay with France.
The Accord, however, stood the test of time and a first referendum was held in 2018 in keeping with the phased and irreversible transfer of power from France to New Caledonia.
Voters were asked if they ‘want New Caledonia to assume full sovereignty and become independent’ – a question which is unchanged for Sunday’s vote.
At stake is again the transfer of the remaining powers, which cover defence, internal security/policing, the judiciary, monetary policy and foreign affairs.
In 2018 just under 57 percent voted against independence, defying the polls which predicted a no-vote in the range of 70 percent.
The Southern Province, which is the most populous and richest, overwhelmingly voted against independence while the mainly Kanak Northern Province and the Loyalty Islands Province equally emphatically voted for independence.
Turnout was 81 percent despite calls by the small Labour Party to boycott the referendum after it claimed that there were irregularities in the special referendum electoral roll.
Voting will again be restricted to indigenous Kanaks and residents who have lived in New Caledonia continuously since 1994.
The restrictions are enshrined in the Noumea Accord, accommodating the wishes of the Kanak population fearful of ending up as a minority in their homeland.
The roll, which has been updated for Sunday’s referendum, has 180,000 voters, leaving aside about 40,000 other adults in New Caledonia who can only vote in French and local council elections.
In August, France issued a document outlining the implications of Sunday’s vote.
While a ‘no’ would leave New Caledonia’s status unchanged, a ‘yes’ vote would open a limited transition period to transfer the remaining sovereign powers, relating to justice, defence, policing, monetary policy and foreign affairs.
It said it would not be a brutal rupture because of France’s historical ties to New Caledonia and its responsibilities towards the United Nations.
At a mutually agreed time, a French law would end the territory’s current status and New Caledonia would issue a unilateral declaration of independence.
The statement also said state funding mechanisms would no longer have a legal basis and would therefore be obsolete.
It said future financial ties would be based on offering development assistance.
The statement said the population of New Caledonia would get passports issued by the new country.
It would then be up to the French National Assembly and Senate to pass a law which would allow some of New Caledonia’s people to retain French citizenship.
Entering the referendum process, the FLNKS proposed to rename the country Kanaky New Caledonia and use the FLNKS flag as the national flag.
It suggested creating a multi-cultural and secular republic based on a constitution to be drawn up by an assembly of all ‘relevant forces’ and to be adopted by the people.
The anti-independence camp, fracturing for more than a decade, regrouped in the lead-up to this year’s referendum and six parties joined forces to form a pro-French coalition calling themselves the Loyalists.
The grouping, which includes the party of the territory’s president Thierry Santa as well as the right-wing National Rally, wants the next referendum to be replaced with a vote on a new statute.
The plan would transform New Caledonia into a constitutionally guaranteed part of the French republic, end moves to create a New Caledonian citizenship and abolish the restricted electoral rolls in use now.
It would also weaken the powers of the territory’s Congress and the collegial government in order to strengthen the administrations of the three provinces.
The anti-independence Caledonia Together party, which lost much of its influence in last year’s provincial elections, has stayed clear of the Loyalists, pursuing a more conciliatory path.
The party urges to find a way forward based on the principles of the past 30 years which were a dialogue and a search for a consensus.
The new French government has shown little interest in the New Caledonia issue.
While the former prime minister Edouard Philippe was closely following the machinations around the 2018 referendum, the administration of Jean Castex has been too new to familiarise itself with the complexity of situation.
No French political party endorses independence while the Republicans and the National Rally, formerly National Front, have campaigned for New Caledonia to remain French.
Outside support for an independent New Caledonia has been modest, and stems mainly from separatist Catalonians in Spain, Corsicans, and French Polynesia’s pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira.
On his regional tour in 2018, President Emmanuel Macron defined New Caledonia as an element of the Indo-Pacific axis which extended from Paris via New Delhi and Canberra.
Geopolitically, France banks on these links to counter China’s influence, and to cement its stance, Paris this month appointed its first ever ambassador in charge of the Indo-Pacific.
Years out from the last referendum, a former president Harold Martin warned against testing the peace of the past decades by putting the issue to the voters.
“Over all these years, the Caledonians have shown to be able to agree on everything but not on the question of independence”, he said.
Campaigning in New Caledonia will stop at midnight on Friday.
Voting will be on Sunday, with preliminary results due before midnight…..PACNEWS