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Oceania

Apr 27, 2013

French Polynesia to vote for stability

French Polynesia votes next week in the second round of an election designed to end a long period of instability. It looks like returning the controversial Gaston Flosse to the top job.

*UPDATE* (30 APRIL)

Sorry, I misread the report: the second round is next Sunday, 5 May, not last Sunday. Otherwise all this still applies.

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Iceland, which I posted about yesterday, is the only place with national elections this weekend. But there’s also a rather interesting election tomorrow [Er, no] closer to home, namely the second round of territorial elections in French Polynesia.

Unlike their counterparts in the British empire, the remaining fragments of the French empire are treated as integral parts of France: their residents are French citizens, and they send representatives to the French parliament. But they also have their own more or less self-governing institutions; in the case of French Polynesia, an elected assembly which in turn elects a president for the territory.

In recent times the two main French possessions in the Pacific, French Polynesia and New Caledonia, have largely moved in parallel. Each was initially divided between an indigenous pro-independence party and an anti-independence party based in the European community. And in each case the latter was dominated by a patriarch who governed the territory for many years almost as a personal fiefdom – Jacques Lafleur in New Caledonia, who died in 2010, and Gaston Flosse in Polynesia, who is still very much alive (more about him shortly).

Both territories have seen agitation for independence – strong and sometimes violent in New Caledonia, generally more subdued in Polynesia. But in each case, as the independence movement has come closer to achieving its objective, the party system has fragmented and new political forces have come to the fore, relegating the issue of independence to the back burner.

It appears as if the agitation was largely being driven by resentment not of French sovereignty in itself, but of the hegemony of the local right-wing colonial elite. Once that was broken, independence became a less pressing matter. And in difficult economic times, the thought of losing the territory’s large subsidies from the French taxpayer was not a welcome prospect.

In Polynesia, the last decade or so has seen a bewildering succession of governments produced by the three-way rivalry between Flosse, the grand old man of the anti-independence movement, his former lieutenant Gaston Tong Sang, and the pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru. Constantly shifting alliances have led to the presidency changing hands ten times among the three of them.

In an effort to curb this instability a new electoral system has been introduced. (Sorry I can’t find a good description of it in English; you can download the official French version here.) It’s proportional across the whole territory, over two rounds; a party has to win 12.5% of the vote in the first round to go through to the second round. (Those with more than 5% are eligible to merge their candidates into a list that’s qualified for the second round.) In the second round, the party with the most votes will win a bonus allocation of a third of the seats, almost guaranteeing it a majority.

In the first round, held last Sunday, only three parties reached the 12.5% threshold. Flosse’s party, Tahoeraa Huiraatira, easily topped the poll with 40.2%; Temaru’s group, the Union for Democracy, was next with 24.1%, and Tong Sang’s new party (led by Teva Rohfritsch), A Ti’a Porinetia, had 19.9%. (See official results here.)

So unless there’s a dramatic reversal of form, Tahoeraa Huiraatira will lead in the runoff and collect the winner’s bonus, emerging with close to two-thirds of the assembly’s 57 seats, and Flosse at the age of 81 will become the territory’s president for the fifth time.

To call Flosse a controversial figure would be an understatement; he has already been convicted of corruption and given a four-year suspended prison sentence (the decision is under appeal), and there are darker allegations still, including the disappearance and possible murder of a journalist in 1997. But it looks as if Polynesians are willing to give him another try.

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