Second pro-independence president elected in Polynesia

Moetai Brotherson to head new Polynesian government 10 years after historic leader Oscar Temaru · New leader does not foresee self-determination referendum earlier than 10 to 15 years

First sitting of the Assembly of Polynesia of the 2023-2028 term.
First sitting of the Assembly of Polynesia of the 2023-2028 term. Author: Assemblée de la Polynésie.
The Polynesian Assembly has elected Moetai Brotherson as the new head of government of this autonomous territory of the French Republic on May 12, after his party, the Tavini Huira’atira, won an absolute majority in the chamber on 30 April. He thus becomes the second pro-independence president in Polynesian history. The party believes it is necessary to use this mandate to redress the socio-economic situation, before considering an independence referendum in 10 to 15 years’ time.

Absolute majority of seats, but not of votes

Left-wing Tavini won the Polynesian run-off election with 44.3 per cent of the vote, ahead of two anti-independence and conservative lists, those of the Tapura Huira’atira, with 38.5 per cent of the votes, and the A here ia Porinetia, with 17.2. However, the fact that the winning list obtained a seat premium means that the Tavini won an absolute majority in the Assembly: 38 seats out of a total of 57.

These 38 seats have allowed the Tavini to elect Moetai Brotherson as Polynesian president on 12 May. He is the second pro-independence leader to hold the post, after historic Tavini leader Oscar Temaru, who served five terms as president between 2004 and 2013. Brotherson has announced that the majority of his new government will be women, including vice-president Éliane Tevahitua, the first woman to hold the post.

At a previous May 11 sessions, the Tavini has already elected Antony Géros as Assembly president, the archipelago’s second-highest authority. The only candidate to the post, Géros has gathered 41 out of 57 votes.

The election of Brotherson and Géros is interpreted as a balance between Tavini sectors, with one that would like to accelerate towards independence —represented by Géros— and another —represented by Brotherson— which believes that during the 2023-2028 term it is not the time to talk about independence, but instead to fight against high poverty rates.

A referendum in 10 to 15 years’ time

Brotherson believes that the Polynesian government should work towards independence. However, unlike Tavini’s old guard, the upcoming president believes that “a referendum cannot be envisaged before 10 to 15 years, and everything will depend on discussions with the state.” More specifically, the new president stresses that “the process of self-determination” will have to be carried out “under the aegis of the United Nations”.

Moetai Brotherson.

Polynesia was reinscribed on the UN list of non-self-governing territories in 2013, at the request of then president Temaru, in the hope that this change would pressure France to organise a referendum on self-determination. But unlike what it has done in New Caledonia, Paris has wanted nothing to do with organising a referendum in Polynesia, nor has it participated in the sessions of the Decolonisation Committee, whose mission is to examine the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and to make suggestions and recommendations on the progress and scope of the Declaration’s implementation. In any case, from 2013 to date, Polynesia has not had a pro-independence government insisting on this issue.

A first major milestone on this path will be the Polynesian government’s address to the Fourth Committee of the United Nations Assembly, which is scheduled to hold its 78th session this autumn. The committee is tasked with addressing decolonisation issues during the Assembly plenary sessions. It remains to be seen what tone the Polynesian authorities will adopt at this forum and what France’s attitude will be.

French governments during Macron’s presidency have warned Polynesians that, in the event of independence, someone else will come in to play the role of hegemonic power in the archipelago. According to this approach, Polynesia has too small a demographic and economic weight (300,000 inhabitants and a GDP of 5.7 billion dollars) to become a truly autonomous actor in a region of the world that has for years witnessed competition between the US and China for influence. Other countries in the region, such as Tonga, are increasingly dependent on Beijing despite being sovereign states. Others, such as the Cook Islands, Pitcairn, Tokelau, Niue, Wallis and Futuna, and Rapa Nui, are still administered by foreign powers.