Pro-independence parties three seats short of absolute majority in New Caledonia

Parties advocating secession from France get 25 seats, up from 23 in 2009 · Qualified majority in New Caledonian Congress should decide on the holding of a referendum on independence · If no deal is reached, referendum can be called by the French government · Pro-union parties show division over the referendum issue

Progression of pro-independence parties in New Caledonia, which was already obvious in the 2009 election, was yesterday confirmed as that autonomous archipelago of the French Republic in the Pacific Ocean renewed all 54 seats of its law-making Congress. Parties supporting secession from France got 25 seats, or what is the same, were only three seats short of reaching an absolute majority for the first time ever. Out of those 25 seats, the Caledonian Union got 9, Palika 7, the unified list in the South Province of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front 6, while other minor parties got the remaining 3 seats. In the 2009 election, the pro-independence bloc had got 23 seats, two less than yesterday.

The pro-union bloc secured 29 seats (two less than five years ago), holding its slightliest majority ever. The big winner within this bloc was pro-autonomy Caledonia Together, with 15 seats. Caledonia Together considers itself to be a multiethnic party which proposes a new, possibily enlarged self-government for New Caledonia within the French Republic. Other more pro-centralist parties gathered the remaining seats: Rassemblement-UMP won 7 seats, and the Union for a Caledonia within France (UCF) got 6. The North Provincial Agreement list took the remaining seat.

Towards the referendum: parties hold different views

Yesterday's elections were especially important since members of the new Congress should agree (a 60%-seat consensus is required) to organize the referendum on independence for New Caledonia, which according to the Nouméa Agreement should be held between 2014 and 2018. If no three-fifths majority is reached in the New Caledonian Congress, then the French government may take unilateral decision to call the vote. If independence is rejected in the referendum, the Nouméa Accord provides for the holding of a second referendum after two years. If "no" wins again, it is expected that a third vote on independence -again after another two years- will be held. If even so independence is rejected for the third time, the Nouméa Agreement says parties must then "examine the situation created."

Caledonia Together does not want a three-time, four-year referendum to be held. The party proposes instead that only one referendum is held, in which citizens choose between independence or autonomy. The novelty in the proposal, Caledonia Together argues, is that both fields (pro-union and pro-independence) would previously be involved in the definition of both scenarios. Thus, whatever the winner option is (independence or autonomy), it would be "acceptable to everyone." Caledonia Together advocates maintaining New Caledonia's links with France, probably with more autonomy than now. According to its president, Philippe Gomès, the archipelago will in fact be more autonomous if France "protects" it than if it becomes independent, because in this case New Caledonia will be "politically, economically and financially colonized" by some great power, "like China."

But other unionist parties are not in favor of negotiating with the pro-independence camp. Union for a Caledonia within France (UCF) founder Gaël Yanno says that the referendum "should not be afraid". All polls published so far give a very large margin for a pro-union victory. UCF, unlike Caledonia Together, refuses to negotiate with the pro-independence parties, and says instead that an agreement between "loyalists" is needed in order to keep New Caledonia within this "vast space of freedom" which is the French Republic, where the archipelago, Tanno argues, enjoys a "quasi federal" relationship. Rassemblement-UMP also advocates keeping the status quo but, unlike the UCF, is totally opposed to the holding of the referendum.

Pro-independence parties, on the other hand, insist that the Noumea Accord should be respected as it was agreed in 1998. The Caledonian Union, in the words of its President Daniel Goa, believes that any alternative scenario would be a "concession", and argues that a vote on independence must be held. The same approach is expressed by Labour Party President Louis Kotra Uregeï. Palika party leader Paul Néaoutyine also says that the Nouméa Agreement cannot be relinquished, and argues that the only acceptable alternative hypothesis could be the one mentioned in a 2013 French government report, in which a scenario of full sovereignty, but "in partnership with France", was foreseen.

The diversity of ideas expressed by the parties suggest that conversations on the referendum will be difficult. The parties that initially refuse to hold the vote as foreseen in the Nouméa Agreement (Caledonia Together and Rasemblement-UMP) have enough members to block any agreement on the referendum. But it is also true that Caledonia Together does want in fact to hold the referendum -even if under another framework-, and may seek an agreement with the French government and the pro-independence parties (together with which it holds more than three-fifths of the seats) in order to reformulate the vote if the secessionists would accept that.